Anabaptists and the Bible


Welcome back! This is the first of several posts about the course I took earlier this year. A big thanks to Dr. Loren L. Johns and his AMBS online offering, ‘Understanding Anabaptist Approaches to Scripture: What is Different and Why?’ We students were a varied group from a number of countries and different Christian walks of life. I learned much from my fellow students, but I ask for their forgiveness as I try to remember what we covered.

Although we used many sources, I’m now rereading Stuart Murray’s ‘Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition’ to wrestle further meaning from our studies. I’m neither the sharpest tack nor the shiniest penny in the box, so please bear with me while I try to organize my thoughts, right or wrong, about the early Anabaptists. Every time one studies history, one is overwhelmed by the number of sincere, research-based disagreements there are. All I can do is attempt the impossible! 


I’m actually trying to organize this information for myself (moi, mir, yo!), and you are listening in, if you wish. Thanks for stumbling along with me. 

First for texture, let’s take a brief moment to view ‘Anabaptist Stories’ with Margaret Enger, sponsored by the First Mennonite Church of Kelowna, B.C. The website for this series is worth a look. In this first offering Enger explores ‘Who are the Anabaptists?’ For those not of this faith, let me tell you about her dutch-y accent, which I love. It is a throw back to the old countries, and it reminds me of my many trips to Berne, Indiana, to visit Grandma and Grandpa Habegger. As is true of many cultures, an accent, particular foods like sausage and sauerkraut, or turns of phrase gather its members into unique comfort zones.

To understand the early Anabaptists, we must see what life was like in Medieval times. Why? Didn’t the Radical Reformation take place in the Renaissance? Yes, but for the majority of peasants, not much changed physically as the so-called ‘Reawakening’ progressed. Life was rough: plague, robbery, famine, death in childbirth, infant and childhood mortality, bad weather for unprotected peasants, local and regional violence including blood feuds, and hunting accidents. Heresy brought with it the horrors of the Crusades, then the Spanish Inquisition. The Renaissance was to be a time of learning and renewal. But the rich got richer, and the educated became more so, while most people still could not read. The Peasants’ War of 1524-1525 (cue in the new Swiss Brethren against their teacher Zwingli) resulted in the slaughter by the aristocracy of at least 100,000 desperate poor folk. 

During these times, there was always someone Above who interpreted the traditions and rules for all of society. The years 1517 (Luther’s Ninety-five Theses) to either the 1555 Peace of Augsburg OR 1648’s Treaty of Westphalia spanned the Protestant Reformation, and far from simply bringing light and freedom, this era brought conflict and pain for those who wished to challenge authority. (Note: some Radical Reformers traced their ideas all the way back to movements and ideas of the 11th and 12th centuries. As you see, even the dates of things are under debate.)

Authority was everything, and it was everywhere. Today in the Western world, we can only imagine how powerful it was. (We’ll talk another time about what Scripture means to those in modern times who are still oppressed. Hint: the early Anabaptists would have recognized their heightened belief.) 

Since we are setting the stage today, please take four minutes to watch this excerpt from the Academy Award winning film, ‘A Man for All Seasons’ in which Thomas (not Oliver) Cromwell, working on behalf of Henry VIII, bullies the church-state judges into finding Sir Thomas More guilty of high treason. Thomas More had tried to keep silent about the king’s desire to divorce Catherine and wed Anne Boleyn. T. More really hadn’t wanted to die, but his silence was interpreted as dissent. It stood in the way of Henry’s wishes, so in 1532, Thomas More was put to death. Notice the high judges, the lower judges and the intimacy of God’s ‘wishes’ with those of the State. Thomas More, a Catholic Englishman, opposed the Reformation, and we can see the machinations of Thomas Cromwell, a champion of the Reformation. Catholics, new Protestants, and the radical Anabaptists raged across the lands. Everybody, even the rich and famous, had to watch his (and her!) back in these times of aristocracy and upheaval. Cromwell himself was put to death by Henry, and Anne B. sure didn’t make it out alive.

Into this post-Medieval, so-called Renaissance structure had already exploded scientific advancement in the form of Gutenberg and his moveable type (1450’s.) The Bible was the prize, and everyone wanted to get their hands, minds, and hearts on it. Add Luther’s German Bible to the mix, and the desire to wrest the good book from corrupt priests and secular leaders was not to be denied. The wish to know God’s word was sincere, but the Bible was also an avenue to individual and small-group power. Heady stuff. 

In panic, and sometimes for personal gain, the Authorities reacted with torture tactics and a belief that man’s soul could be saved if he gave up his chaotic, evil quest for biblical interpretation beyond what the Church-State provided. For example, in 1525 Switzerland, Felix Manz was accompanied to the Limmat River by a Reformed minister who admonished him to recant. Manz would not and was drowned. This scenario, a hangover from Inquisition methods, was echoed throughout Europe.

Add Humanism. The Humanist movement was dedicated to recovering, interpreting, and assimilating the language, literature, learning and values of ancient Greece and Rome. One source lists Thomas More, Calvin, Luther, and and our almost-own Zwingli as humanists, even though they disagreed mightily on the details of their Protestant religions. Belief in the genius of man and the ability of the human mind guided these thinkers. One wonders if there were simply too many egos in the room for peace to be valued and rewarded. The Anabaptists’ distrusted human genius. They had seen too much interference of mankind in biblical matters. Given the violence of the times, their peace stance was remarkable.

But the early Anabaptists had a difficult time stating a unified hermeneutic, which means ‘the science of reflecting on how a word or event in a past time and culture may be understood and become existentially meaningful in our present situation.’ Note: I tend not to like the word ‘hermeneutic’ as it sounds quite haughty to me. Gracious, the word simply means ‘interpretation.’ As you will see, this insistence upon simplicity of expression dubs me a true Anabaptist.

  1. This difficulty was the result of persecution, which necessitated much running and hiding in small groups. 
  2. Persecution brought about the early deaths of key leaders within a few years of the movement’s beginnings. Manz, Grebel, the Sattlers, and many others died before they could have the time to unify a theology, the Schleitheim Confession not withstanding. It was only one confession. Murray says that Menno Simons, a Dutchman, was not accepted in his lifetime by other groups as a spokesman for the whole movement, and the theologians Balthasar Hubmaier and Pilgram Marpeck, although known today, were ‘somewhat peripheral to the development of the movement’ in its early years.
  3. Groups were scattered, and thus, they developed different twists on the basics of Anabaptism: the Swiss Brethren, Southern Germans, and Dutch had disagreements.
  4. With heavy persecution and demands to appear before town councils to debate (and be banished or die,) there was time to develop only the most important principals of interpretation. A long, complex hermeneutic would have been a luxury.

Murray says that ‘the areas in which Anabaptists can offer {the most} are {…} the determination to start with Jesus as the key to understanding Scripture: and their approach to Scripture’s “plain sense” and “literal sense.” In other words, the texts were clear, and they told people what to do. If the fallen Catholics and the Reformers didn’t want to do the actions required, how could they call themselves Christians? 

The Anabaptists insisted upon the freedom 1. to Interpret Scripture, which they felt was clearly and simply written, 2. to Practice Obedience to Scripture, especially the Gospels of Christ, and 3. to Act. God’s Kingdom was real to them, and they were in opposition to anyone who appeared to give only lip service to it. For the righteous, it was obedience unto death. Simple but effective. 

Next time, we will look at some specific approaches to Scripture. Thanks for hanging in there!


I welcome your comments:

{Thank you to my niece, Addie Liechty, for taking the picture that is this blog’s featured image. Her blog is:}

Best wishes and have a good week.



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Greta Holt


  1. Diane Gottlieb on April 18, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    HI Greta! Great to see you back again!
    Interesting and lots to remember, so … don’t sell yourself short–you are both sharp and shiny!
    Loved Margaret’s accent too and loved the old movie clip.
    Main take away for me is bravery in the face of persecution. Probably has a lot to do with the “doing” that you talk about.
    Thanks for the education!

    • Greta Holt on April 18, 2019 at 9:44 pm

      How nice to hear from you! Thanks for reading and watching the clips.

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