by Dr. David L. Cummins

First posted on Cutting Edge in April 2002

Many modern-day Baptist Bible colleges and seminaries in America are teaching that the modern-day Baptist movement is a product of the Reformation.  This makes it a simple step to claim that the Baptist doctrinal heritage is also from the Reformation.   If the beginning of the Baptist movement indeed took place in 1641, our Baptist forefathers in America, who long believed otherwise, were in total error!  It is interesting to realize that the view that Baptist history extends only back to 1641 was unknown until 1886, when William H. Whitsitt, then president of Southern Baptist Seminary, wrote articles which appeared in “…Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia claiming that Baptists as a denomination had emerged from English Separatism in the early 1600s.”[i]  His volume entitled A Question in Baptist History appeared in 1896 and was published in Louisville, Kentucky, by Charles T. Dearing.  Let it be observed that until that time most Baptists did not question the fact that an unbroken line of succession of truth existed from the time of the New Testament and onward. Great controversy developed insomuch that Dr. Whitsett’s statement so disturbed Baptists that “…relentless warfare was waged on Whitsett and the seminary by some Southern Baptist newspapers and correspondents.  At length seminary trustees became convinced that harmony could be restored only by President Whitsett’s resignation, which was offered and accepted in 1899.”[ii]      

Thomas Armitage, America’s best known Baptist historian, wrote thus in the Preface to his History of the Baptists: “It is enough to show that what Christ’s churches were in the days of the Apostles, that the Baptist churches of today find themselves.  The truths held by them have never died since Christ gave them, and in the exact proportion that any people have maintained these truths they have been the true Baptists of the world.”[iii]  This interpretation of Baptist history has become known as principle successionism, and the present author has seen no evidence that has caused him to repudiate this position.  Dr. Whitsett claimed that immersion was re-discovered by the Baptists in England in 1641.  However, additional scholarship has revealed that immersion as it was taught in the New Testament, was practiced anew long before 1641. Before addressing that subject, I believe it is important to realize that modern-day scholarship points out that truth surely endured from the days of the New Testament onward.

Leonard Verduin wrote: “The one encouraging fact is that there was at all times, all through the Middle Ages, a sustained protest against the distortions that had come with the Constantinian change – and that this sustained protest finally and ultimately was able to blow apart the Constantinian colossus.  In and with the protest the New Testament and its delineation of the Christian Church remained a part of the heritage of man.”[iv]

In another volume, Dr. Verduin wrote: “Anabaptism was not a tempest in a teacup.  The whole Reformation was influenced by it, perhaps more than by any other tendency of the times.  There was hardly a court in Europe that did not have matters pertaining to this eruption of ‘heresy’ on its docket.  And yet, as Cornelius has pointed out, the movement had no apparent head.  This is unthinkable – on the assumption that it all began with the events of 1517.  It is as though a movement like communism could erupt spontaneously from the North Sea to the Mediterranean without any names attached to it, no mention of Marx or Lenin.   The strange silence about who was at the head of Anabaptism becomes completely understandable once we recognize that it was a resurgence, a revitalization of ideas of long standing, ideas that were never absent from the medieval scene and can be traced back all the way to the days of the birth of the original hybrid.”[v]

Were the so-called “Ana-baptists” a “new sect”?  “In the report of the Council of the Archbishop of Cologne about the ‘Anabaptist movement,’ to the Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), it is said that the Anabaptists call themselves ‘true Christians,’ that they desire community of goods, ‘which has been the way of Anabaptists for more than a thousand years, as the old histories and imperial laws testify.’  At the dissolution of the Parliament at Speyer it was stated that the ‘new sect of the Anabaptists’ has already been condemned many hundred years ago and ‘by common law forbidden.’  It is a fact that for more than twelve centuries baptism in the way taught and described in the New Testament had been made an offence against the law, punishable by death.”[vi]

“Predilection is pleased to regard the Anabaptists [‘Re-baptizers’]–as runs the nickname given by the Church to the advocates of the baptism of believers– as a new sect which suddenly arose after ‘the ancient Christian practice of infant baptism had maintained its legitimate right’ for almost fifteen centuries.  But numerous researchers have already shed much light upon the fact that the so-called ‘Anabaptism’ is to be regarded only as a reawakening or a continuation of very ancient principles, and, as Ludemann emphasizes, ‘not as that rootless phenomenon, suddenly springing up out of the Reformation movement, as hitherto it has been mostly regarded.”[vii]

If the Anabaptists came from the Reformation, it is interesting to notice the attitude of both Calvin and Luther toward them.  “In writing to Henry Vlll, for example, Calvin recommended that the Anabaptists be burned as an example to other Englishmen.  For, he wrote, ‘It is far better that two or three be burned than thousands perish in Hell.’”[viii] And of Luther we are told, “His attitude to Anabaptism was molded by a succession of unfortunate events, and he turned from toleration through banishment to the death penalty for sedition and for ‘blasphemy’ (a term which in practice was largely equated with what hitherto had been called heresy).”[ix]

No, the Anabaptists did not spring from the Reformation, but they were in the line of truth that had endured from the New Testament days.  “It is well known that Pierre de Bruys, who lived in the twelfth century, attacked the christening customs of the prevailing Church.  He taught that no one should be baptized until he had reached the age of discretion.  He assailed ‘christening’ not only, but practiced rebaptism.  The word, of course, he did not use (no Anabaptist has ever been at peace with that word); but the Petrobrusians, as Pierre’s followers were called, declared: ‘We wait until the proper time has come, after a man is ready to know his God and believe in Him; we do not, as they accuse us, rebaptize him who may be said never to have been baptized before.’”[x] Truth is eternal, and Bible-believers through the ages of the Christian era have always existed.  One must take the time to read such volumes as the History of the Donatists by David Benedict, The Ecclesiastical History of the Ancient Churches of Piedmont and of the Albigenses by Peter Allix, and the History of the Waldenses by J. A. Wylie to witness the continuation of eternal truth.

The Anabaptists realized that they had not come from the dominant Roman Church.  This is clearly set forth as follows: “Anabaptists held that the primitive church of the apostles had lost its purity and had ceased to be the church.  This catastrophe was referred to as ‘the fall of the church.’  Even though this is a common Reformation concept, there is no general agreement as to when the fall occurred.  For the Reformers, it took place with the assumption of temporal authority by the papacy.  Luther dated the fall with Sabianus and Boniface lll, but Zwingli pinpointed it with Hildebrand and the ‘assertion of hierarchial power.’  Calvin was inclined to date it with Gregory the Great.  However, for the Anabaptists, it was the usual procedure to date the fall with the union of church and state under Constantine.  An anonymous Anabaptist tract printed in Augsburg around 1530 asserts, ‘There was not among the Christians of old at the time of the apostles until the Emperor Constantine any temporal power or sword.’

“The Anabaptist interpretation of the church’s all differed greatly from that of the Reformers.  The Reformers accepted uncritically the Roman interpretation of the Constantinian era as a period of the church’s triumph.  For them the Reformation was a revolt against papal authority but not against the Roman concept of the church as an institution.  They believed that the old church needed to be cleansed from various abuses and errors, but they did not want to be cut off from its corporate solidarity.  Even after their organizational break with Rome was complete, they still felt a sense of continuity with the Roman Church of pre-Reformation days.

“…This is the reason why the Anabaptists viewed the Reformers as halfway reformers.”[xi]

How tragic it is that so many have dismissed the Anabaptists without a fair examination of these stalwart saints and Baptist forebears.  Estep points out that “Scholars of preceding generations have leaned heavily upon the high partisan and quite unreliable accounts of sixteenth-century Anabaptism in the writings of Ulrich Zwingli, Justus Menius, Heinrich Bullinger, and Chrisoph Fischer, to say nothing of the milder but just as erroneous accounts of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.”[xii]

In his first edition of The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism, Franklin H. Littell wrote: “The Anabaptists have commonly been judged on the basis of insufficient evidence.  It is time for a re-trial.”  In 1963 he wrote: “As this is written it is not too much to say that, while the process of re-trial is not yet complete, the ‘prisoner at the bar’ (the Anabaptists) has a much different countenance from what he had before scholars began to take the evidence of the Tauferakten and related reports seriously.”[xiii]

Rather than reading the antiquated charges against our Anabaptist forebears that were made by their enemies – both Catholic and Reformed – I suggest that our present-day teachers of Baptist history avail themselves of the current evidence before prosecuting their case!

It is important to reiterate that the Anabaptists were separate from the Reformers regarding their doctrinal position.  They were Bible-centered rather than creed-centered.  “Upon one occasion Menno wrote that if Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine could support their teaching ‘with the Word and command of God, we will admit that they are right.  If not, then it is a doctrine of men and accursed according to the Scriptures. (Galatians 1:8).’”[xiv]   Dr. Clearwaters has asked: “Upon what faith did Calvin write his theology, ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion?’  He wrote this work in 1536 on ‘The Apostles’ Creed,’ to show that Protestants were loyal to the Apostles’ Creed: and to prove that the Reformers were not giving to the Church any new Creed but simply going back to the beliefs of the Apostolic Age.  This is the first weakness of Reformed Theology today, it is based upon the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, instead of the Word of God.”[xv]

Two statements made by Abraham Friesen in his most interesting volume point out that the Anabaptists were Biblicists for they built their faith directly on the Word of God!  And secondly, the entire thrust of Friesen’s volume points up the fact that the Anabaptists accepted the Great Commission as a Divine mandate that was incumbent upon them in their day, whereas the Reformers placed the significance of the Great Commission only upon the Apostles of our Lord in the first century.  We shall visit the latter point again, but notice the first Baptist distinctive in Friesen’s actual quotation as he described the Anabaptists: “The Bible alone had authority for the Anabaptists; and if the leaders used Erasmus’s New Testament and his accompanying Annotations, then it is perhaps permissable to speak of a Direct influence of Erasmus on the Anabaptists.”[xvi]

In his volume, Littell briefly catalogues some of the doctrines of the Anabaptists as follows:  “The separation of church and state which the Anabaptists represented thus involved at least two positive affirmations of vital religious significance: (1) the civic right of a free man to private religious interpretation, and (2) the Christian duty of the voluntary association to enforce a strong internal discipline.”[xvii]  In other words, point one has to do with soul liberty, while the second point calls for an autonomous church of disciplined believers.  As Littell observes, this mandates a separation of sacred and civic powers.  The Anabaptists and Reformers differed radically at this point.

Concerning a regenerate church membership that necessitates adult baptism, Clearwaters has said: “This is the trap into which all of the reformers stumbled!  And with Infant Baptism: Luther fastened a state church upon Germany!  Zwingli fastened a state church upon Switzerland!   John Knox fastened a state church upon Scotland!  Henry Vlll fastened a state church upon England!  And all of these in turn became persecutors themselves!”  And in the same section he said: “The Pilgrim settlers used Infant Baptism to fasten a State Church upon the Colonies!”[xviii]

Reading again in Littell, he states: “Of special significance was the Anabaptists’ denial of the Mass, and it must be comprehended in terms of their general reaction to display and formalism.  The radicals refuted the objective merit upon which the Roman Church rested, and denied the real presence which Luther and Calvin retained.  For them the Supper was a memorial and symbol of their corporate union with each other in the Risen Lord.”[xix]  The Lord’s Supper was a “memorial”, and thus they saw it as an ordinance and not as a sacramental meal.

“Shortly thereafter adult baptism became a spiritual sword aimed right at the heart of the cantonal church system.  As persecution increased in the following years the issue of baptism grew in importance, but from the very first it implied a significantly different view of the nature of the church which the Reformers could hardly miss.”[xx]  This surely drew the line of demarcation between Catholicism, the Reformers, and the Anabaptist view of baptism.

I have alluded to Abraham Friesen’s quotation above, but it is well to note that Friesen reveals that the Great Commission provides the key to understanding the core of Anabaptist faith and practice.  The Anabaptists view of the Great Commission, too, was clearly different from that of the Reformers.  The Reformers believed that the Great Commission applied only to Jesus’ immediate audience.  They believed that “After the Great Commission had run out, at the end of the Apostolic age, ‘no one any more [had] such a general apostolic commission, but each bishop or ecclesiastical leader has his own church role and place.’”[xxi]  But according to Anabaptist understanding of right faith, every believer was commissioned of the Lord to set forth the Gospel.  “No words of the Master were given more serious attention by His Anabaptist followers than the Great Commission.”[xxii]  The Anabaptists felt keenly about the Great Commission, for they said: “‘Our faith stands on nothing other than the command of Christ. (Matthew 28, Mark 16) …. For Christ didn’t say to his disciples: go forth and celebrate the Mass, but go forth and preach the Gospel.’  The very orders of the words conveyed His intent to His followers: Firstly, Christ said, go forth into the whole world, preach the Gospel to every creature.  Secondly, he said, whosoever believes, thirdly – and is baptized, the same shall be saved. This order must be maintained if a true Christianity is to be prepared, and though the whole world rage against it.”[xxiii]

“James Thayer Addison once summed up the attitude of the Reformers as follows: ‘For nearly two centuries the Churches of the Reformation were almost destitute of any sense of missionary vocation.   The foremost leaders — men like Luther, Melanchton, Bucer, Zwingli, and Calvin — displayed neither missionary vision nor missionary spirit.  While conceding in theory the universality of Christianity, they never recognized it as a call to the Church of their day.  Indeed some of them even interpreted ‘Go ye into all the world’ as a command already executed in the past and no longer operative.  And the very few thinkers who rejected this deadening view remained without influence.”[xxiv]

“Justus Menius, the famous Lutheran polemicist against the Anabaptists, acknowledged the point of difference in reporting ‘that the misleaders charge we are not true servants of the Gospel because we are sinners, and don’t ourselves practice what we preach; because we don’t wander a round in the world like the Apostles, but stay put and have definite residence and also have our appointed pay’ ….   Menius stated flatly that ‘God sent only the apostles into all the world…’”[xxv]

In summation, the essence of the Anabaptist position demanded that the evangel comes first, then faith, and finally baptism.  This, of course, repudiated infant baptism. A failure to respect this Scriptural sequence indicated a lack of respect for the mind of Christ.  Baptism of those in whom faith was stirred by the preaching of the Gospel was the logical culmination of the mandate!

Furthermore, the Anabaptists were greatly at variance in the understanding of the difference between the Old and New Testaments.  “Marpeck’s most creative contribution to Anabaptist thought was his view of the Scriptures.  While holding the Scriptures to be the Word of God, he made a distinction between the purpose of the Old Testament and that of the New.  As the foundation must be distinguished from the house, the Old Testament must be distinguished from the New.  The New Testament was centered in Jesus Christ and alone was authoritative for the Brethren.  To hold that the Old Testament was equally authoritative for the Christian was to abolish the distinction between the two.  Failure to distinguish between the Old and New Testaments leads to the most dire consequences.  Marpeck attributed the peasants’ revolt, Zwingli’s death, and the excesses of the Munsterites to this cause.  Making the Old Testament normative for the Christian life is to follow the Scriptures only in part.  In Marpeck’s eyes the pope, Luther, Zwingli, and the ‘false Anabaptists’ were all guilty of this fundamental error.  Though Marpeck did not include Calvin in his list, was it not at this same point that the renowned reformer of Geneva made his most serious blunder?  If Marpeck had made no other contribution to Anabaptist theology than this one insight, would it not be sufficient to make him worthy of recognition?”[xxvi]

And before coming back to the subject of believer’s immersion, let me point out that while Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli became the noted theologians of their schools of the Reformation, the outstanding theologians of the Anabaptists never had the opportunity to write extensively.  Men such as Michael Sattler and Balthasar Hubmaier were martyred before they had opportunity to organize a systematic Anabaptist theology!

I have claimed that modern-day immersion among Baptists existed prior to 1641, and now I must return to that premise.  Surely no one who has read any history of the Anabaptists would claim that all Anabaptists espoused believer’s immersion, but the Anabaptists championed anew believer’s baptism.  However, some of the Anabaptists practiced believer’s immersion.  Estep  wrote as follows: “Some time during the month [February, 1525] near Schauffhausen, he (Grebel) baptized Wolfgang Ulimann, a former monk, by immersion in the Rhine River.  Ulimann prior to his baptism had reached Anabaptist convictions which led him to request baptism at the hands of Grebel, but not out of a platter (nit wolt mit ainer schussel mit wasser allain begossen)!  Whereupon Grebel and Ulimann promptly went down into the Rhine where Grebel, according to Kessler, ‘put him under the waters of the river and covered him over’ (in dem Thin von dem Grebel under getruckt and bedeckt werden).”[xxvii]

The Donatists existed from approximately 311 a.d. to 420 a.d. in North Africa.  Did the Donatists immerse?  “As both the Catholics and the Donatists practiced immersion in baptism, there could be no dispute between them on the mode of baptism.”  “Because the Donatists required faith not only of the person baptized, but also of the baptizer, Optatus accused them of esteeming themselves more holy than the Catholics.”[xxviii]

Or let us consider the ordinance of Baptism by immersion as it was practiced among the Waldenses.

“In 1463, in the mountains of Reichenau, and again in 1467 at Lhota, there were general gatherings of brethren, at which many persons of rank and influence were present, where they considered afresh the principles of the Church.  One of the first things they did was to baptize those present, for baptism of believers by immersion was common to the Waldenses and to most of the brethren in different parts, though it had been interrupted by pressure of persecution.”[xxix]

In his volume of 1882, Henry Burrage wrote: “There has been some discussion recently in reference to the practice of immersion by the Anabaptists of Switzerland.  Attention has already been directed to the immersion, early in 1525, of Wolfgang Ulimann in the Rhine at Schaffhausen, and of the converts of St. Gall a few weeks later.  I find no further examples in the records.  But the fact that the Senate at Zurich subsequently decreed (Zwingli, Opera, lll s. 364) that anyone immersing a candidate in baptism–qui merserit baptismo–should be drowned, is a significant hint.  Kessler (Sabbata, i, s 270) tells us that at St. Gall the Anabaptists had a ‘Taufhaus,’ or baptistry.  Sicher, a Romanist eye-witness (Arx, Geschichte d. Stadt, St. Gallen, ll, s 501) says: ‘The number of the converted [at St. Gall] increased so that the baptistry could not contain the crowd, and they were compelled to use the streams and the Sitter River.’  John Stumpf, in his Gemeiner Loblicher Eydgenossenchaft, who during the period under survey lived in the vicinity of Zurich, and was familiar with the history of the Anabaptist movement, says that generally the early Anabaptists of Switzerland were ‘rebaptized in rivers and streams.’”[xxx]

That immersion was well known is also suggested by a statement made by Ulrich Zwingli.  “Zwingli’s ‘most unkindest cut of all’ occurred when he said, ‘Let him who talks about going under “go under” [the water]!’  It may well have been this unkind word that inspired men to truss up Felix Manz so that he could not swim, and to send him thus bound to the bottom of the Limmat!  Manz had talked about ‘going under’ in baptism; well then let him have his fill of it!”[xxxi]

Proof positive that immersion was practiced by the 16th-century Anabaptists is found in the confession of Martin Luther when he wrote his tract entitled The Babylonish Captivity of the Church.  He wrote: “Baptism then signifies two things, death and resurrection; that is, full and complete justification.  When the minister dips the child into the water, this signifies death; when he draws him out again, this signifies life. . .For this reason I could wish that the baptized child should be totally immersed, according to the meaning of the word and the signification of the mystery; not that I think it is necessary to do so, but that it would be well that so complete and perfect a things as baptism should have its sign also in completeness and perfection, even as it was doubtless instituted by Christ.”[xxxii]

As he closes his volume, Burrage lists distinctives of the Anabaptists that present-day independent, fundamental Baptists are pleased to emulate as well.  These follow: “1. That the Scriptures are the only authority in matters of faith and practice.  2. That only personal faith in Christ secures salvation; therefore, infant baptism is to be rejected.  3. That a church is composed of believers only who have been baptized on a personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ.  4. That each church has the entire control of its affairs, without interference on the part of any external power. 5. That while the State may demand obedience in all things contrary to the law of God, it has no right to set aside the dictates of conscience, and compel the humblest individual to surrender his religious views, or to inflict punishment in case such surrender is refused.  Every human soul is directly bound to its God.  One man shares equal rights with every other.”[xxxiii]

Let others deny their relationship to the Anabaptists, but I, for one, am pleased to claim the ancestry of separatism rather than that of reformation.  Baptists have never been part of Rome but continue on in the succession of eternal truth!

David L. Cummins   |  Deputation Director

Baptist World Mission

[i]McBeth, H. Leon, The Baptist Heritage (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), 446.

[ii]Dobbins, Gaines S., Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists (Nashville: Broad Press, 1958), 2:1496.

[iii]Armitage, Thomas, History of the Baptists (New York: Bryan Taylor & Co., 1887), 111.

[iv]Verduin, Leonard, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eermans Publishing Co., 1964), 45.

[v]Verduin, Leonard, The Anatomy of a Hybrid (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976), 161.

[vi]Broadbent, E. H., The Pilgrim Church (Edinburgh: Pickering & Inglis, 1935), 130.

[vii]Warns, Johannes, Baptism (London: The Paternoster Press, 1957), 125-126.

[viii]Estep, William R., Renaissance & Reformation (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 241.

[ix]Littell, Franklin H., The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (New York: The Macmillan Company), 11.

[x]Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, 194.

[xi]Estep, William R., The Anabaptist Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1963), 177.


[xiii]Littell, X1 of the Introduction.

[xiv]Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 129.

[xv]Clearwaters, Richard V., The Biblical Faith of Baptists (Detroit: Published by the Fundamental Baptist Congress of North America, 1964), 221.

[xvi]Friesen, Abraham, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Wm. B. Eerdman Publishing Co., 1998), 39.

[xvii]Littell, Franklin H., The Origins of Sectarian Protestantism (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1952) 67.

[xviii]Clearwaters, 221.

[xix]Littell, 68.

[xx]Littell, 71.

[xxi]Littell, 112.

[xxii]Littell, 110.

[xxiii]Littell, 111.

[xxiv]Littell, 114.-

[xxv]Littell, 114.

[xxvi]Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 81-82.

[xxvii]Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 25.

[xxviii]Benedict, David, History of the Donatists (Pautucket: Nickerson, Sibley & Co., 1875), 19-20.

[xxix]Broadbent, 130.

[xxx]Burrage, Henry S., A History of the Anabaptists (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1882), 203-204.

[xxxi]Verduin, Leonard, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, 217.

[xxxii]Newman, Albert Henry, A Manual of Church History (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1931), 2:63.

[xxxiii]Burrage, 221-222.