the audio recordings of these papers are available here:

Part IV God’s People: ‘Sola Scriptura’

In the first three sessions on the Reformation there has been much to celebrate. We have seen that access to Scripture was the key that unlocked rediscovery of the gospel. We have explained how Martin Luther discovered for himself the joy of justification. We have remembered John Calvin’s emphasis on the supremacy of the glory of God in the whole plan of redemption. Many studies of the Reformation stop there. In our highly individualistic culture, once we have grasped the glory of the gospel, we may be tempted to simply celebrate our own salvation. But when we are saved, we are not only united with Christ, the Head, we are united with his Body, the Church. The question then has to be asked. What is the Church? More precisely, who belongs to the Church? Everyone born in a territory? Or those who repent and believe? Is the Church a territorial Body or a gathered congregation? And who should decide what goes on in the Church? Does the Civil Magistrate, the State, have a role, or is Sola Scriptura the only authoritative rule for faith and practice? Should religious orthodoxy be enforced in society? Should the State punish heresy? These questions caused bitter division during the Reformation.

We will consider, first, how these questions played out in the Swiss City of Zurich. Secondly, we’ll look at the spread of ‘anabaptism’ beyond Zurich, and the fierce opposition this provoked. Third, to understand that opposition, we need to remember why the ‘magisterial’ Reformers remained convinced of the union of church and state. Fourthly we will consider the vast variety of views collectively condemned as ‘anabaptist’. Some were violent, some were pacifist, some were bizarre, some were heretical, some were biblical. But, according to the one common denominator of rejecting the union of church and state, they all tended to be thrown into the same basket. Fifthly, we will look at the legacy of the radical Reformers. Persecuted in their own day, they are still routinely vilified. Yet their convictions about a gathered church of believers, and freedom of conscience, are now widely embraced.

A. Conflict at Zurich

Among the many colourful and dynamic figures of the Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) stands out. He was born in 1484 in Switzerland. Like Luther, as a young Roman Catholic priest he studied the original Greek New Testament (Zwingli was so enthusiastic that he memorised all the Epistles in the original Greek). Like Luther, Zwingli came to a profound experience of salvation by grace. On 1 January 1519, his 35th birthday, Zwingli was appointed as priest and preacher at the Great Minster of Zurich. He stunned the congregation when, instead of turning to the reading for the day in the prayer book, he opened his Bible at Matthew chapter 1 verse 1 and told them that he was going to preach systematically through the whole New Testament. He preached boldly against those elements of the Roman Church he found to be in contradiction to the Word of God.

His congregation in Zurich also began comparing biblical teaching with Roman tradition, and finding tradition wanting. So it was that on a Friday during Lent 1522, a leading Zurich citizen invited some friends, including Zwingli, round for supper. And he served sausage. That sausage supper was an act of revolution. It defied the Roman Catholic tradition that meat should not be eaten on Fridays in Lent. Shortly afterwards, Zwingli preached a sermon entitled: ‘On the Choice and Freedom of Food’. He argued that banning meat during Lent was a purely human rule. He described all such man-made-traditions as ‘spots on the face of Christ’, ‘unseemly things’, ‘arising from ‘the foulness of human commands’.

[1] And prohibiting meat during Lent was just one of many human innovations such as relics, indulgences and images of saints which could not be found in Scripture.

Zurich was ruled by a Mayor and a 24-member Council. Later that year the City Council of Zurich decided to break free of Catholic rule. By this time, Zwingli had attracted a keen group of evangelical scholars to Zurich, who, like him, believed that the Bible should be the only authority for doctrine and church practice. One of the leading figures in this group was a young scholar called Conrad Grebel, son of one of the Zurich council members. Others included Felix Manz and George Blaurock.

Soon controversy was raging in Zurich about how far and how fast church reform should proceed. In October 1523, at a public debate, Zwingli agreed that the City Council should determine whether or not images should be retained in churches, and for how long the Mass in its old form should be retained. This was a climbdown. Back in 1520, Zwingli had stated that the civil authority had no place determining what went on in the church. Now, three years later, he had become convinced that the only way the Reformation could take root in Zurich was if the civil magistrates enforced it.[2] For pragmatic reasons, he accepted that fully biblical reform would have to wait until the Council pushed it through. Zwingli, in the view of Grebel and his friends, was failing to operate on the principle of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone as the final authority. ‘The authority of the Word of God had been sacrificed on the altar of human expediency.’[3]

‘Should the State control what goes on in church?’ Zwingli’s answer now, was ‘yes’. Conrad Grebel and his friends said ‘no!’

Their rejection of the decision to allow the Council to set the pace of reform was a key moment in the history of the ‘Free Churches’. They wanted a ‘free’ church in the sense of being controlled by Sola Scriptura, not Scripture plus tradition, or Scripture plus what the magistrate says (the phrase ‘free church’ simply means free from state control).

Who belongs to the church?’

As Conrad and his friends studied the Scripture they became convinced that the church is made up of those who profess repentance and faith. In their view, infants can’t do either of those things. In early January 1525, Conrad’s wife had a baby girl. Conrad and Barbara did not take little Rachel to be christened. This was a crime. Infant ‘baptism’ at that time was not just a religious practice. It was a civil obligation. It marked membership not just of the church, but of the state. The Council demanded an explanation, and set up a debate on January 17 1525. Grebel and his friends remembered that in their early acquaintance with Zwingli, he had examined Scripture and admitted that there is no example of an infant being baptised. Zwingli had written:

‘Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptise children, for I know it ought not to be done.’[4]

‘If we were to baptise as Christ instituted it, then we would not baptise any person until he reached the years of discretion, for I find it nowhere written that infant baptism is to be practised.’[5]

But they also remembered that Zwingli had gone on to say:

‘If however I were to terminate the practice (infant baptism) then I fear that I would lose my preband [position]. . . One must practice infant baptism so as not to offend our fellow men.’[6]

For Zwingli, expediency had triumphed over Sola Scriptura. Grebel despaired of his friend, writing, heartbroken, that:

‘Zwingli, the herald of the Word, has cast down the Word, has trodden it underfoot, and has brought it into captivity.’[7]

At the public debate in January 1525 the Council ruled that anyone who failed to present their babies for baptism within eight days of birth should be expelled from the city. Zwingli supported this ruling. A few days later, a group of believers met in the home of Felix Manz, and took a momentous step. They each openly confessed repentance and faith. Then Conrad Grebel baptised George Blaurock, a converted priest. Blaurock then baptised the others. Each regarded this as their first and true baptism. They rejected the validity of their christenings. They formed a congregation of those who had openly professed Christ, through confession of belief, and baptism. Grebel and his friends said that church is a fellowship of believers. They wanted a ‘free’ church not just in the sense of being free of state control as to what goes on, but also in the sense of being based on voluntary membership, not coerced by the magistrate to be there.

In subsequent days this group were tireless in going house to house, witnessing, evangelising, baptising converts. Some of them moved to the nearby village of Zollikon. A believing congregation was formed there in late January 1525.[8] In April 1525 there seems to have been a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in St Gallen, where Grebel baptised around five hundred people in the Sittar River.[9] Grebel then went back to his home town of Gruningen, and for four months visited door to door and preached to small groups. It was here that he and his colleague Blaurock were seized by magistrates and accused of sedition. Manz was captured a short time later. They, and a large number of those who had been baptised were imprisoned in Zurich.[10]

Zurich Council had resurrected an ancient accusation which had been used of dissenting Christians during the Middle Ages. They called Grebel, Manz and their associates ‘ana’ baptists, or ‘re’ baptists. They argued that to conduct a baptism other than infant baptism was sedition and treason. It challenged the rite which glued society together. Grebel et al never ever accepted this label of ‘ana’ baptist. They simply called themselves ‘Christians’ or ‘brethren and sisters’. But the Council pronounced that anyone who practised what they called ‘ana’ or ‘re’ baptism, should recant. Torture could could be be used to attempt to secure recantation. If they did not recant, if they were not citizens they should be banished, if they were citizens, they should be killed. Zwingli fully endorsed this ruling.

In 1525, one advocate of believer’s baptism, Balthasar Hubmaier, fled to Zurich for refuge from Catholic forces. He had written a powerful plea for religious toleration in 1524. It was entitled: Concerning Heretics and those who burn them. He accepted that magistrates have a duty to uphold law and order, but he denied their power to enforce religion. He wrote:

‘Now it is apparent to everyone, even the blind, that the law which demands the burning of heretics is an invention of the devil.’[11]

He was arrested. The magistrates ordered that he be tortured to force him to recant. Zwingli commented with satisfaction on the success of this, writing: he ‘repeated the retraction three times when stretched on the rack bewailing his misery’[12]. Of course, it was a forced recantation, which Hubmaier bitterly regretted. He quickly returned to preaching the need to repent and be baptised. Between 1526 and 1527 he conducted a preaching and visitation ministry in Nikolsburg in Moravia (present day Slovakia). There was an extraordinary movement of the Spirit. About 6,000 professed repentance and were baptised within a year, including some of the Moravian nobility.[13] When re-captured by the Imperial authorities, Hubmaier was taken to Vienna, imprisoned, tortured, and burned at the stake. His wife was drowned.

On January 5, 1527, Felix Manz was sentenced by the Zurich authorities to be bound and thrown into the river Limmat. While being taken to his death he sang praises to God, and preached to those who had gathered to watch him die. His brother and mother stood on the shore urging him to be steadfast. Zwingli watched as his friend and former follower was killed.[14] His comment? ‘Let him who talks about ‘going under’ go under!’[15] Blaurock was not a citizen of Zurich. He was given a brutal beating and expelled. And, by this time, Grebel had died of the plague.

B. The Spread of ‘Evangelical’ ‘Anabaptism’

On 24 February 1527, a group of the brethren gathered in the small South German town of Schleitheim, and adopted the Seven Articles of Brotherly Union. This was not a full confession of faith, rather it was a list of the distinctives that marked them out from other believers of the time. It organised them into a believers church, a gathered church.

1527 The Schleitheim Confession[16]

The Confession affirmed that magistrates are ordained for the punishment of evil doers, including capital punishment. But it said that within the church, the ultimate punishment is excommunication. Magistrates are not entitled to use the death penalty for spiritual offences. The Bible, not the magistrate, must order church practice. It affirmed membership of the church is for professing believers, not everyone in a territory. This is the ‘gathered church principle’. The biblical order, they believed, was repentance and faith, followed by baptism and church membership.

May 1527: Michael and Margaretha Sattler martyred in Rottenburg

One of the authors of the Confession was a converted Roman Catholic prior called Michael Sattler.[17] After converting to protestantism he had married Margaretha. She had been a member of a Catholic lay order. They were both baptised as believers. In May 1527, they were captured by Catholic authorities along with nine other men and eight women. Michael’s sentence was shocking:

‘He shall be committed to the hangman who shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, then chain him to a wagon, tear his body twice with hot tongs there, and five more times before the gate, then burn his body to powder.’[18]

Sattler died bravely praying for his persecutors. Eight days later, his wife Margaretha was drowned.[19] So those who joined a believers church could expect to be hunted down and persecuted.

Reacting against the coercion of the state church, many of them adopted an ethic of love and non-resistance. They believed that the Sermon on the Mount meant that believers could not take up arms. In the context of the time, magistrates had to be willing to engage in torture, including in the compulsion of religion. They reacted by saying that true believers could not practice as magistrates.

This evangelical Anabaptist movement spread rapidly from 1527 onwards not only in Switzerland but through South Germany, Austria, Eastern Europe and the Low Countries. Sebastian Franck, an opponent of anabaptists, wrote in 1531, scarcely seven years after the rise of the movement in Zurich:

‘The Anabaptists spread so rapidly that their teaching soon covered the land . . . They soon gained a large following, and baptised thousands, drawing to themselves many sincere souls who had a zeal for God . . . They increased so rapidly that the world feared an uprising by them though I have learned that this fear had no justification whatsoever.’[20]

Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian authorities all tried to stamp out the anabaptist movement by force. Magistrates in both Protestant and Catholic areas forcibly christened children against their parents’ wishes. This was not halted in some places until the nineteenth century. In 1529 the Diet or Parliament at Speyer was convened. This confirmed the death sentence for all Anabaptists, ordering that ’every Anabaptist and re-baptised person of either sex should be put to death by fire, sword, or some other way’. By 1535 just six years later, over 5,000 believers had been killed.[21] The authorities found that Anabaptists were not deterred by torture or death. Their resilience and joy in the face of brutality served only to win more recruits to their cause. When it was obvious that individual trials and sentences were inadequate to stem the tide of conversions:

‘. . . the authorities resorted to the desperate expedient of sending out . . . companies of armed executioners and mounted soldiers to hunt down the Anabaptists and kill them on the spot singly or en masse without trial or sentence . . .’[22]

Why did the mainstream reformers unite with Catholics to insist that those who advocated a ‘gathered’ church be stamped out by force?

C. The Medieval Catholic Church and the Magisterial Reformers endorse ‘sacralism’

The ‘magisterial’ Reformers, including Luther, Zwingli and Calvin never broke away from the medieval concept of the union of church and state. Anything else they regarded as a dangerous threat to the stability of the state. They believed that it is the duty of the civil magistrate to enforce true religion.

Martin Luther

During Luther’s heady early days as a rebel against Rome he had questioned whether force should be used to compel faith.[23] But he quickly came up against the harsh reality of his own situation. He knew that he would only survive with the protection of his local Prince. Increasingly, he turned to the German Princes to both implement and shelter the Reformation. He later proved unyielding in his demand that the magistrate should enforce religious uniformity. His justification for this was always based on the Old Testament identification of the people of God with the nation.

At one point Prince Philip of Hesse asked him whether it was really necessary to put anabaptists to death. (In the second session we mentioned that Luther sanctioned this Prince’s bigamous marriage in an effort to control his womanising). Luther now wrote to Philip:

‘Princes and civil authorities have the power and the duty to abolish unlawful cults and to establish orthodox teaching and worship. Concerning this point Leviticus applies: ‘He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord let him be put to death’. Princes must not only protect the goods and the physical being of their subjects, but their most essential function is to promote the honour of God, to repress blasphemy and idolatry. That is why in the Old Testament the kings . . . put false prophets and idolaters to death.’[24] 

And Luther also believed that magistrates had the duty to control who was ordained to the ministry:

‘. . .if he wants to preach or teach let him exhibit the call or commission that drives him to it [ie from the magistrate] or else let him keep his mouth shut. If he refuses this, then let the magistrate consign the scoundrel into the hands of his proper master, whose name is Master Hans [a euphemism for the hangman].’[25]  

What about the question: Who belongs to the church? Like Zwingli, Luther early in his reforming career dabbled with the desirability of a gathered church. In 1526 he wrote:

‘They who seriously want to be Christians and want to confess to the Gospel in word and deed, these ought to have their names inscribed in a book and assemble in a house by themselves for the purpose of prayer, the reading of Scripture, the administration of baptism, the reception of the sacrament . . . but I do not as yet have the people for it.’[26]    

Also like Zwingli, Luther early on admitted doubts about infant baptism, writing:

‘There is not sufficient evidence from Scripture that would justify one in beginning infant baptism at the time of the early Christians after the apostolic period.’[27]

But then failing to find grounds in Scripture, he fell back on church history:

‘In our time no one may venture with a good conscience to reject or abandon infant baptism, which has so long been practised.’[28]

So much for Sola Scriptura! In the case of infant baptism, Luther was unashamed in appealing to tradition. In later years, Luther was virulent in his criticism of those who supported a gathered church of believers. He wrote:

‘Conventicles [private meetings for religious devotion] are in no cases to be tolerated . . . these are the thieves and murderers of whom Christ spoke in John 10:8, persons who invade another person’s parish . . . They must neither be tolerated or listened to, even if they seek to preach the pure Gospel . . .’ [29] 

Luther condemned all anabaptists as ‘corner preachers,’ ‘infiltrators,’ ‘rabble preachers,’ ‘messengers of the devil’; the word he often used was Schwarmer: conjuring up the image of mad buzzing bees. In his preface to the commentary on Galatians he wrote:

‘For, leaving aside the abominations of the Pope, whoever heard of such an outbreak of monsters as we see to-day in the Anabaptists? Truly, in them Satan is stirring up his own everywhere with frightful commotions.’[30]

John Calvin

Calvin believed that the magistrate is appointed by God to ensure that all Ten Commandments are obeyed.[31] Magistrates were to use both torture and the death penalty to enforce orthodoxy. Admiring biographers tend to airbrush out the more shocking elements of his correspondence. A letter to his friend William Farel written in 1555 about the arrest and torture of some of his opponents is especially chilling.

‘[concerning the] ‘two brothers . . . assuredly I am convinced that not without the judgement of God they suffered . . . a long torture under the hand of the executioner. Now those who are kept in fetters have pretty clearly revealed their misdeeds . . . Before two days we shall see, I hope, what the rack will wring from them.’[32] 

And he wrote to Madame de Caney about one heretic:

‘Knowing the man he was, I could have wished he were rotting in some ditch. I assure you Madame, that had he not so soon escaped I should . . . have done my best to bring him to the stake.’[33]  

It is sad that Calvin’s magnificent writings are marred throughout by violent invective against those whom he smears collectively as ‘anabaptists’. He calls them ‘mad beasts’, ‘frantic spirits’ and speaks of their ‘mad ravings’. He condemns them for ‘raging openly at God’s institutions’. Ever since, admirers of Calvin have, all too often, also used ‘anabaptist’ as a catch-all smear word.

Through the century following 1525, there was one thing on which Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics all agreed. To preserve societal stability, all infants should be baptised, by force if necessary. When some believers refused to baptise their children, and, worse, practised what was regarded as ‘re’ baptism, and gathered in separate religious assemblies this was regarded as a threat to the unity and stability of society.

When these believers also denied that the civil magistrate had the power to enforce true religion, it was assumed (wrongly) that they denied that the civil magistrate had any power at all.[34] This was regarded not only as heresy but treason. And traitors could be punished by death, enforced by the civil authorities. The accusation of treason became even more charged when some ‘anabaptists’ adopted pacifist views, and refused to take up the sword, even in self-defence. But the Turks were literally at the gates of Europe! The thought of large sections of the population refusing to take up arms against them was too terrible for the authorities to contemplate.

D. Varieties of ‘Radical’ Reform

That all partly explains the hostility evoked towards ‘re’baptised believers. We need also to note that a vast spectrum of ideas went under the collective insult ‘anabaptist’. It was like a bucket in which to throw every non-conforming religious minority, from the most pious and sincere to the most profane and mischievous. One could draw a parallel with the current smear words ‘extremist’ or ‘fundamentalist’. These words may be used to condemn as a lunatic a violent Islamist terrorist on the one hand, and, equally, a saintly seventy-year-old Sunday school teacher who believes in creation on the other.

Going back to Europe in the sixteenth century: a wide variety of individuals and groups questioned infant baptism. We do not have time to comment on all of them, but we should  note two groupings, very different from the Zurich brethren, and at opposite ends of the doctrinal spectrum.


On the one hand there were those one could categorise as ‘rationalists’. Remember that Europe was emerging from the Renaissance, where people were called away from blind reliance on tradition, and challenged to go back to the original sources. Going back to the New Testament sources, without the filter of church authority and tradition, led many scholars to question infant baptism, as it cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament.

Many of the rationalists were accomplished humanist and classical scholars. They took Reason as their chief authority. This often also ended up in the holding of anti-Trinitarian views. This group included men such as Michael Servetus, the anti-Trinitarian who was burned at the stake in Geneva. When referring to anabaptists en masse, Calvin very unjustly called Servetus ‘the great glory of that tribe’.[35] Many rationalists, including some highly educated humanist scholars, with unorthodox beliefs were classed as ‘anabaptist’, simply because they questioned infant baptism. That led to guilt by association for everyone else who questioned infant baptism as well.


At the other extreme from the rationalists, there were those we could call the Inspirationists’. These people were enthusiasts, full of zeal for immediate reform, and unwilling to wait for others to catch up. Some of them claimed Holy Spirit inspiration for their ideas.

In 1521 while Luther was in hiding in the Wartburg, he was disturbed by reports of some enthusiasts back in Wittenburg who were agitating for immediate reform. They wanted the immediate removal of images from churches, and an immediate reform in liturgy and practice. Two of the leaders, Thomas Storch and Thomas Munzer, were nick-named the Zwickau prophets. Thomas Munzer would shortly be caught up in the widespread German peasant rebellions of 1525. He was captured, tortured and executed. By then Luther had reacted with almost incandescent horror to the peasant’s revolt. After this he always associated rebellion with anabaptism.

There’s a double irony here. First, Thomas Munzer never baptised believers. Second, his taking up of arms was in direct contrast to the pacifist convictions of many of the more mainstream Anabaptists.

Some inspirationists became taken up with the expectation of the coming of Christ. They even urged violent steps to inaugurate the coming kingdom. Among them were a group of desperate men who had escaped persecution in the Low Countries. They attempted to set up the ‘Kingdom’ in the city of Munster in North West Germany. In 1534, they founded a pseudo-communistic state and called it the ‘New Jerusalem’. All manner of shocking things happened, which gripped the collective attention of Europe like a running soap opera. The town was captured in 1535. The leaders were tortured to death, and their corpses were exhibited in metal baskets. You can still see the baskets hanging from the Tower of St Lamberts. This tragic drama was used to blacken the name of all ‘anabaptists’ for many years to come.

Peaceful ‘Evangelical’ ‘Anabaptists’

But many others, also labelled anabaptist, were neither rationalist nor inspirationist. Many, like the group in Zurich, simply did not believe that the state should control the church. Sola Scriptura, not the magistrate, should determine faith and practice. They believed that the people of God are no longer a nation state based on blood as in the Old Testament, but a gathered church of repentant sinners who profess faith in Christ, as in the New Testament. They believed that church membership should be voluntary, and that the mark of entry is repentance and believer’s baptism. They called for a life of strict obedience to Christ. Discipleship was their great strength. Zwingli admitted:

‘Their conduct appears irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive . . . their lives are excellent’[36]

In contrast to the rationalists, these Anabaptists took Scripture not reason to be their sole authority.[37] In contrast to the violence advocated by the more apocalyptic inspirationists, most of them were convinced pacifists.[38] In the context of the day, where magistrates had to enforce religious coercion, including the death sentence for heresy, they said church members should not serve as magistrates. But they did affirm that magistrates should keep civil order and punish wrongdoers. Many of them took Christ’s condemnation of taking vows literally. They took the great commission seriously. They sought to evangelise their neighbours, as well as those further afield.

Anabaptism was a grass roots movement not a top down movement, and it was ceaselessly persecuted. Doctrinal precision was not always evident. One can look back and fault the theology of many of them.[39] But their strength was a great love for Christ and his church.

Menno Simons of the Netherlands is remembered as the founder of the Mennonites, many of whom fled to America. Another leader Jacob Hutter, from the Tyrol, gave his name to the Hutterites; anabaptists who were successively pushed by persecution further and further into Eastern Europe, and then ultimately over to North America. In this context of living ‘on the run’ many of them shared their possessions. In time, they formalised the principle of communal life, and common possession of goods. This was not only a matter of survival. There was an earnest desire to follow Christ’s example and obey his teaching, however radical that seemed.

The Chronicle of the Hutteran Brethren, written in 1542, was an account of the early generation of martyrs and contains 2,173 individual testimonies. Passed down secretly from generation to generation, it was recovered and printed in the twentieth century. These testimonies are some of the most moving and inspiring accounts of devotion to Christ you will ever come across.[40]   

Another collection of testimonies was first published in Holland in 1660. The full title was:

The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians who baptised only upon confession of faith, and who suffered and died for the testimony of Jesus, their Saviour, from the time of Christ to the year A.D. 1660.

The use of the word defenceless in this case refers to the Anabaptist belief in non resistance.

The Martyrs Mirror is available freely and in full on-line; a searing account of the suffering inflicted on men, women and young people, simply for the crime of practising believers’ baptism.[41] Here are some examples. In 1544, two young women who lived in Delden, the Netherlands, were baptised. They were captured, and were questioned by magistrates. They said they were truly baptised just once as believers. The younger girl Maria was burned to death, while Ursula was forced to watch. She then was asked if she would recant, but she also chose to be burned rather than deny her faith.[42] In 1569 a Dutch Anabaptist, Dirck Williams, escaped from his home, but he was chased by officials. Coming to a frozen dyke he crossed safely. His leading pursuer fell through the thin ice. Turning back, Dirck Williams saved him from certain drowning. Despite this, he was arrested, and burned slowly at the stake.[43]

Here’s one more testimony which tells of the faith of a young woman called Janneken Munstdorp. Jannekin was killed in Antwerp in 1573. While in prison awaiting execution, she gave birth to a little girl. She left a letter to be given to her daughter in later years:

‘My dear little child, I commend you to . . . God that he will keep you and let you grow up in his fear . . . You shall have no lack here, if you only fear God, for he will be the Father of the orphans. . . . My dear Lamb, I who am imprisoned and bound here for the Lord’s sake can help you in no other way. Your father and I were permitted to live together only half a year, after which we were apprehended because we sought the salvation of our souls. They took him from me and killed him . . . I have borne you under my heart with great sorrow for nine months, and given birth to you you here in prison in great pain. They have now taken you from me. Here I lie, expecting death every morning, and shall soon follow your dear father . . . My dear lamb who are yet very little and young, I leave you this letter, and this gold ring. I bid you adieu and kiss you with a perpetual kiss of peace. If you follow that which is good, you shall receive the crown of eternal life. This crown I wish you, and the crucified, bleeding, naked, despised, rejected and slain Christ for your bridegroom.’[44]

We don’t know what became of Janneken’s baby. But Jannekin’s testimony still speaks today. It speaks not only of her shining love for Christ, but also of the horrible evil of religious persecution.

E. The Legacy of the Radical Reformers

What about the legacy of the Radical Reformers? In terms of direct ‘denominational’ descent, there are Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ: in total about 730,000 in 57 countries, with the largest number in North America, Zaire, Indonesia and Russia.

In strictly denominational terms, we cannot draw a straight line between the radicals of the sixteenth century and the Baptists of today. The Baptist movement in England arose in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the Puritan movement. The English Baptists always distanced themselves from the continental anabaptists. Many of them (the ‘Particular’ Baptists) were committed to Reformed beliefs with regard to Divine Sovereignty, and that was in contrast to the rejection of Calvinist beliefs by some continental Anabaptists. So the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith deliberately mirrored the Westminster Confession in every article, with the exceptions of believers baptism, and the face that the magistrate is not to enforce religious orthodoxy.[45]

Gathered Church – Believers Baptism

But of course Baptists accept the central and distinctive Anabaptist view that entry to the believer’s church (or gathered church) follows on from believer’s baptism. And, world-wide, the Baptists form one of the largest denominations. But it’s not only Baptists who accept these principles. Pentecostals and Charismatics generally practise believer’s baptism (and, with it, the gathered church principle), as do many other evangelicals. So when you consider the global situation for evangelical Christians, all would accept the gathered church principle, and many would accept believer’s baptism.

Free Church

In terms of acceptance of the central Anabaptist vision of a church free of state control, and with voluntary not coerced membership, this notion, so toxic, so despised, in the sixteenth century, is now mainstream. The radical Reformers were ahead of their time. We look back and can only admire their courage in standing against all the forces of the establishment of their day on this point of principle.

Freedom of Conscience

The conviction that church membership should be voluntary, not forced, goes inseparably with insistence on freedom of conscience. The anabaptists argued that God desires our willing obedience. True faith cannot be coerced.

Bullinger was Zwingli’s successor as chief preacher and Reformer in Zurich. His ministry spanned fifty years. He published two long treatises opposing the Swiss Brethren in 1531 and 1561. Here is how he sums up their argument:

‘One cannot and should not use force to compel anyone to accept the faith, for faith is a free gift of God. It is wrong to compel anyone by force or coercion to embrace the faith, or to put to death anyone for the sake of his erring faith . . . The Lord has commanded us simply to preach the Gospel, not to compel anyone by force to accept it. The true church of Christ has the characteristic that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone.’[46]

Bullinger set out to refute these ideas one by one. He concluded that to kill anyone promoting these views was to do society a favour. He and many others at the time regarded the notion of freedom of conscience as dangerous and seditious.

Today, whatever our genuinely differing convictions may be about either baptism or establishment, we would all agree that we don’t think that people who disagree with us should be killed!

The anabaptists were way ahead of their time in arguing for religious freedom. And in subsequent years it was the early Baptists who continued to pioneer this radical notion of liberty of conscience. The first full defence of religious liberty in English was written by the Baptist Thomas Helwys in 1612. His biblical treatise against religious persecution was called The Mystery of Iniquity. He then sent a personally inscribed copy to King James, writing:

‘If the King’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the King, our Lord the King can require no more, for men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves, the King shall not answer for it; neither may the King be judge between God and men.’[47] 

James I was not impressed. Helwys was imprisoned in Newgate, in horrible conditions, and died there in 1616.

The next landmark biblical defence of religious freedom was written in 1644 by the Baptist Roger Williams. Williams had come to strong Puritan convictions while studying at Cambridge University. In 1631 he sailed over to Massachusetts. He argued that force never produces genuine faith, that forced worship is abominable to God,[48] and that the magistrate has no place in controlling the church. He wrote:

‘That cannot be a true religion which needs carnal weapons to uphold it.’[49]

‘Men’s consciences ought, in no sought, to be violated, urged or constrained.’[50]

These ideas were anathema to the civil and religious authorities in Puritan Massachusetts. Expelled from Massachusetts, Williams purchased land on Rhode Island, where he founded a settlement which he called ‘Providence’, a ‘haven for those with distress of conscience’. This was the first colony which deliberately set out to practice separation of church and state; and freedom of conscience and religion. In 1644, Roger Williams wrote The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, a passionate defence of religious liberty.[51] In response, the great Puritan preacher, and minister in Boston Massachusetts, John Cotton, defended religious coercion in his book entitled: The Bloody Tenet washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb (1647). But then, in 1651, the cause celebre of Obadiah Holmes, moved Roger Williams to write a further defence of religious liberty.

Holmes was a Puritan who had sailed to Massachusetts in 1638. When, later, he came to baptist convictions, he was expelled, and found refuge in Rhode Island. In 1651 he made a visit to an elderly Baptist in Massachusetts, and with some others, held a small service in his home. He was arrested. During the court hearing in Boston, John Cotton stated that ‘denying infant baptism would overturn all and was a capital offence, and that those who did so were soul murderers.’[52] Obadiah was fined; but, on principle refused to pay. The magistrates then ordered that he be whipped. This is how the Governor of Rhode Island described what happened on August 5 1651:

‘Mr Holmes was whipped thirty stripes, and in such an unmerciful manner that for many days, if not some weeks, he could take no rest but as he lay upon his knees and elbows, not being able to suffer any part of his body to touch the bed whereon he lay.’[53]

Puritans back in England were horrified. Oliver Cromwell took a personal interest in the case. Roger Williams was so incensed that he penned a work with the title:

The bloody tenet, made yet more bloody, by Mr Cotton’s endeavour to wash it white in the blood of the Lamb.

In reply, John Cotton defended the public whipping of Obadiah Holmes. He said it was better to make men hypocrites, than to allow them to continue as ‘profane’ persons.[54] As we look back on this bitter disagreement, surely we would all stand with Williams rather than Cotton. And today if you visit the massive Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland, you will find a huge statue of Roger Williams beside the central four (Calvin, Farel, Knox and Beza).

F. Reformation Today?

A few words to conclude this series on the sixteenth century Reformation. What about today? Does all this belong to past history? Many would claim that the Reformation represents a monumental tragedy, a schism in the Church which we must mend. Many Evangelicals support the ‘Churches Together’ movement which pushes joint evangelistic endeavours. Many would suggest that the Reformation is over. But we saw in the first session that the fundamental position of the Roman Church with regard to authority has not changed. I believe we have to stand, with the Reformers, on the supreme authority of the Word of God. The Bible is God’s Word, living, and active, inspired from beginning to end by the Holy Spirit. How dare we add to it!

And we saw in the second session that the fundamental position of the Roman Catholic Church with regard to salvation has not changed either. The Bible teaches that Christ’s perfect work of salvation is complete: ‘It is finished’! How dare we add to that! Of course individual Catholics can and do experience God’s grace if they repent and trust in Christ alone. But that doesn’t mean that we should join up uncritically with the institutional Catholic Church.

Yes, we can and should work alongside Roman Catholics on matters of common concern, such as some ethical issues and religious freedom. But that doesn’t mean that we should engage in common gospel mission.

Why is this so important? Our eternal salvation depends on the answer to the question: ‘How can I be right with God?’ The biblical answer is that I am saved by grace alone. My salvation is secured through the perfect work of Christ, received by faith alone. This biblical view of salvation gives God all the praise. That’s what the Reformation was all about. Rediscovering the gospel. And giving all glory to God.

Soli Deo Gloria.


[1] The sermon is reprinted in The Works of Zwingli: Volume One, 1510–1522, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1912), 70-112, quoted in The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, Stephen J. Nichols, Crossway, 2007, p67.

[2] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, Eerdmans, 1975, p12, G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, Westminster Press, 1962, pp89-101.

[3] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p13.

[4] Leornard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, Eerdmans, 1964, p198, cf p172. Also note Zwingli’s correspondence with Balthasar Hubmaier in 1522, see Williams, The Radical Reformation, p65, footnote 6. For  Hubmaier’s recollection of the disputation with Zwingli in 1523, see Williams p140; William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p14.

[5] Leornard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p199.

[6] Leornard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p199, cf. p173.

[7] G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, p96.

[8] Fritz Blanke, ‘Anabaptism and the Reformation’, in G.F. Hershberger, ed. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, p62. Blaurock proved to be a powerful evangelist: ‘The result was a spiritual awakening of soul-shaking depth. People were inwardly moved, they confessed their sins and began to weep. In remorse they came to Blaurock and his friends and asked for baptism as the sign that God had forgiven them.’

[9] William R Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p28.

[10] An unknown benefactor secured the release of the prisoners, who fled into hiding. A short time later Grebel died of the plague. Felix Manz was soon rearrested.

[11] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p197.

[12] Zwingli to Capito, Nos 434, 488, quoted in G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, p140.

[13] William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, p64.

[14] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Broadman Press, 1988, p138.

[15] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, Eermans, 1976, p169

[16] Mark A. Noll, ed. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation, Baker Book House, 1991, ‘The Schleitheim Confession’, 1527, pp50-58. The Seven Articles of the Confession were as follows:

* Baptism to follow repentance and faith

* Church membership for professing believers

* Church members to separate from open evil

* Church discipline for open sin

* Pastors to be supported by their congregations

* Secular rulers to wield the sword to punish the wicked. In the church only the ‘ban’, not the sword to be used; Christians not to take up the sword, as magistrates or in battle

* Christ forbids swearing therefore Christians not to take oaths.

[17]  He had been second only to the Abbot at St Peters, a large Benedictine monastery in the Black Forest.

[18] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p170, (translations vary)

[19] The memorial plaque at the place of Sattler’s burning, near Rottenburg reads: ’The Baptist Michael Sattler was executed by burning after severe torture on 20 May 1527 here on the ‘Gallows Hill’. He died as a true witness of Jesus Christ. His wife Margaretha and other members of the congregation were drowned and burned. They acted: for the baptism of those who want to follow Christ; for an independent congregation of the faithful; for the peaceful message of the Sermon on the Mount.’

[20] Horsch, 293, from Sebastian Frank’s Chronica, Zeitbuch und Geschichtbibel (Strassburg, 1531 ). In the same year Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor at Zurich, and a strong opponent of anabaptists wrote ‘the people were running after them as though they were living saints’.Heinrich Bullinger, Von dem unverschampten fr&aumlfel . . . der selvsgesandten Widertouffern (Zurich, 1531), folio2v., quoted in ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, Harold S Bender, Another contemporary writer asserted ‘Anabaptism spread with such speed that there was reason to fear that the majority of the common people would unite with this sect’.

  1. Roth, Augsburgs Reformationsgeschichte (Munich, 1901), I, 230. quoted in ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, Harold S Bender.

[21] ‘Mennonites and their Heritage’, Bender and Smith p. 47, Quoted by James M. Shanz in Baptist Reformation Review,  vol 7, No 3, p36. In subsequent sessions of the imperial diet this decree was re-invoked and intensified. In 1551 the Diet of Augsburg issued a decree ordering that judges and jurors who had scruples against pronouncing the death sentence on Anabaptists be removed from office and punished by heavy fines and imprisonment.

[22] ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, Harold S Bender, ‘In Bavaria [Swabia] . . .the original 400 special police sent against the Anabaptists in 1528 proved too small a force and had to be increased to 1,000.’ Even as late as the first half of the eighteenth century, a permanent police agency of Anabaptist-hunters existed in the Canton of Bern.

[23] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p189. In 1523 Luther wrote; ‘In matters of faith we have to do with a free act, one to which noone can be coerced. Heresy is something spiritual, it can neither be bruised with iron nor burned with fire nor drowned in water, only the Word of God can overcome it. The secular authorities should keep hands off, should busy themselves with their own affairs and let everyone believe this or that as he chooses: force must not be used in this area of life.’

[24] Recommendation to Philip of Hesse from Luther, Bugenhagen and Creutziger, Schriften, XX, Col 1718, quoted in Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p195.

[25] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, p197.

[26] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, pp189-190.

[27] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, pp188-9.

[28] Leornard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, pp189.

[29] Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid, 1976, p196.

[30] Martin Luther, Preface to Commentary on the Galatians, Note that modern versions omit or radically paraphrase this section.

[31] John Calvin, Institutes, Book XX: ‘Civil government is designed as long as we live in this world to cherish and support the external worship of God, to preserve the pure doctrine of religion, to defend the constitution of the church . . . No government can be happily constituted unless the first object be the promotion of piety.’

[32] John Calvin, Letter 408, To Farel, Geneva 24 July 1555. Ages Software: The John Calvin Collection, Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, Vols 4-7, Letters 1528-1564.

[33] John Calvin, Letter 292, To Madame de Cany, Geneva January 1552. Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, Vols 4-7, Letters 1528-1564.

[34] ‘Calvin’s sacralist thinking made it impossible for him to distinguish between terminating the civil rule and expelling it from the affairs of the faith’. Leornard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, p59.    

[35] Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chapter XVI, Section 31, Ed. McNeill, Translated Battles vol. 2, p1353.

[36] Erwin W. Lutzer, Rescuing the Reformation, Baker Books, 2016, p157.

[37] See the section ‘Sola Scriptura’ in William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, pp140-144.

[38] Commonly, they shared: ‘three major points of emphasis; first, a new conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship; second, a new conception of the church as a brotherhood; and third, a new ethic of love and non-resistance.’ ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, Harold S Bender,

[39] But then, to be consistent, one would have to look back to the mainstream Reformers and note ways in which they remained in the medieval mindset:. Calvin, for example, always believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is not found in Scripture. Luther believed in ‘soul sleep’, in reaction against the Catholic view of Purgatory (as did some anabaptists).

[40] The Chronicle of the Hutteran Brethren, Volumes 1 and 2, Plough Publishing House, 1987. It concluded: ‘No human being was able to take away out of their hearts what they had experienced, such zealous lovers of God were they. The fire of God burned within them. They would die the bitterest death, yea, they would die ten deaths rather than forsake the divine truth which they had espoused.’

[41] The Martyrs Mirror,

[42] The Martyrs Mirror, pp. 467-8,

[43] The Martyrs Mirror, p. 741-2, Dirk Willems 1569,

[44] Quoted in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, pp301-2.

[45] The question of Baptist origins is discussed by David Bebbington in Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People, Baylor University Press, 2010.

[46] Quoted in translation by John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe, 325, from Bullinger’s Der Wiedert&aumlufferen Ursprung, etc., Zurich, 1560, quoted in ‘The Anabaptist Vision’, Harold S Bender,

[47] Thomas Helwys, Preface to The Mystery of Iniquity, 1612.

[48] Tom Nettles, The Baptists: Volume 2: Beginnings in America, p42.

[49] Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, 1644, p82 footnote 51.

[50] Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, 1644, see p33 footnote 37.

[51] Part of the text of The Bloody Tenet is available online:

[52] Stephen Rees, ‘Obadiah Holmes: Pioneer of Religious Freedom’, Westminster Conference Papers 2011, Freedom, Courage and the Truth, p55.

[53] Stephen Rees, ‘Obadiah Holmes: Pioneer of Religious Freedom’, Westminster Conference Papers 2011, Freedom, Courage and the Truth, p. 57. Years later, aged seventy-five, Holmes wrote his testimony of faith as follows: ‘I believe there is no salvation but by Christ alone, no other Name under heaven by which man can be saved . . . I believe none has power to choose salvation or to believe in Christ, for life is the gift only of God . . . I believe that the true baptism of the Gospel is a visible believer with his own consent being baptised in common water by dipping, or, as it were, drowned to hold forth death, burial, resurrection, by a messenger of Jesus into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit . . . For this faith and profession I stand and have sealed the same with my blood at Boston in New England, and hope through the strength of my Lord to be able to witness the same to death’. Christianity In America: A Handbook, Lion, 1983, p49.

[54] John Adair, Founding Fathers, Baker, 1982, p242.