Fifth in a Series on the Protestant Reformation
Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.
|Thomas Müntzer, ca. 1520|
We are not inquiring here what kind of men the Baptists are today, but what was their origin, what their early history. They state in their writings that their origin is wrapped in obscurity. But history has of late torn away the veil of many pretences, and it has done so in the present case. It is now clearly known that the Baptists have come from the Anabaptists; they have dropped the first two syllables of their original name in order to escape the odium attached to those early sectaries. The history of the Anabaptists is as well known as any ordinary event of the past four centuries.
The word anabaptist etymologically means a person who baptizes over again. It was used to designate the fact that their new doctrine held infants' baptisms to be of no avail, since the sacrament could benefit those only who desired it. Now as all Christians before the Reformation began had been baptized in their infancy, those who joined this sect were re-baptized. This error was origininated by Thomas Müntzer, the Lutheran pastor of Zwickau in Saxony, in the year 1520. He and his followers carried the principles of the Reformation to their furthest consequences: everyone was to interpret the Bible for himself, and they professed to find texts in the Sacred Volume that justified rebellion against princes as well as against bishops and popes. They were socialists, mystics, fanatics; they rejected all authority, all tradition, all control of any kind. Intoxicated with individual liberty, they went about committing such excesses, such outrages on morality, as disgraced the name of Anabaptists for all future generations.
Müntzer gave a fresh impulse and a new character to the "Peasants' War," as it was called, which was directed by him to the establishment of an ideal Christian commonwealth with communistic institutions. In 1525, his army was defeated at Frankenhausen. He was tried, condemned and executed.
But this well-deserved punishment was looked upon by the Anabaptists as a form of most unjust persecution. New associations were formed among them, new prophets and teachers arose, the propaganda was extended among the peasants and serfs of Germany, Austria and Hungary in every direction. They summarized their tenets as follows:
Impiety prevails everywhere. It is therefore necessary that a new family of holy persons be founded, enjoying, without distinction of sex, the gift of prophecy, and skilled to interpret Divine Revelation. No need of learning; for the internal law is more than the outward expression. No Christian is allowed to go to law, to hold an office in the civil government, to take an oath in a court of justice, or to possess any personal property; everything among Christians must be in common.
They went about burning all books but the Bible, and destroying all churches within their reach. Catholics are often blamed for being intolerant of heretics, for refusing them liberty of conscience. But when they saw what heresy and liberty of conscience meant during the first decades of the Reformation, how could they help being intolerant? Who, if he knows the facts, can blame them for defending their own liberty of worship, their churches, their altars, their priests, bishops and the Supreme Pontiff against all manner of insult and violence? Must a man stand by and see what is nearest and dearest to his heart outraged by mobs and fanatical leaders of mobs? I do not think the Catholics today would patiently submit to such mob violence if it were offered, and I do not know that any would expect it from high-spirited citizens.
A few years later, John of Leiden, a tailor by trade, was proclaimed King of New Zion. He put all the laws of morality, of decency and moderation at defiance. He was a tyrant to his subjects; yet, he pleased them by introducing polygamy. He pronounced anathemas against Luther as well as against the Pope of Rome. At last Munster, the capital of his kingdom, was taken in 1535; and he and others of the leaders were tortured with hot pincers till they expired.
The most fanatical of their leaders being thus removed, new prophets arose, who objected to polygamy and to other most revolting disorders. In many places, the better element among the Anabaptists prevailed, and the sect became more like the ordinary followers of the Reformation. But its name has ever since remained one of extremely bad repute, and its members have often been persecuted by other Protestant bodies. Some of them went to settle in the Netherlands, and thence passed over into England, in company with some English dissenters who had fled from the persecution in their own country, and who in Holland had taken up the main tenets of the Anabaptists. As early as 1535, we read of ten Anabaptists suffering death for their heresy under Henry VIII in England, and in 1538 of three men and one woman executed for the same opinions. Yet their tenets gradually spread, and now there are said to be about 500,000 of those sectaries in Europe; but the name Anabaptists had been changed to that of Baptists.
In America, they are far more numerous. In 1533, a colony of Welsh Anabaptists had come over to settle in Massachusetts. Here the celebrated Roger Williams undertook to defend the same errors as the Anabaptists in Europe, as far as Baptism was concerned. But instead of the lawlessness and the excesses of the early leader of the Anabaptists, he displayed a spirit of moderation and tolerance which has made him one of the most honored pioneers of religious liberty in the United States.
From the beginning of the heresy, its followers objected to the name "Anabaptists," because they said infants were incapable of receiving baptism, and therefore were not re-baptized but simply baptized when they desired it in riper age. They claimed the name Antipaedobaptists, "against the baptism of children." But the appellation was cumbersome; and, besides, the term Anabaptists was not incorrect, for the vast multitudes of Christians in all ages have considered infant baptism valid, and therefore the repeating of the ceremony in later life was an attempt to repeat baptism, to baptize over again. History has consecrated the term Anabaptists and it will no doubt remain till the end of time.
But the Baptists of the present day have another objection against the name as applied to themselves. In this, they are right. For although they are historically connected by descent of origination, and still more evidently by sameness of their leading doctrine, with the Anabaptists of Reformation times, yet, as it is a given or proper, not a common name, and the appellation has been historically disgraced, they have an undoubted right to disown it as the designation of their present organization. We respect their reasonable wishes in this matter, and therefore we have headed this essay Origin of the Anabaptists and Baptists, admitting the distinction, yet tracing both divisions to their common historical origin.
It would certainly be unjust to blame the modern branch for the wild fruit produced by older branches which are now dead and cut off. But the root of the entire tree is evil; at most, the defence can be made that the Baptist sect is the growth of human passion pruned by human reason, but it is in no sense the work of God. It is the same with many others of the early Reformation sects. Their modern members have, to a great extent, disowned the most objectionable principles of their founders. Thus, most Lutherans of the present day no longer believe in the total depravity of human nature, in the slavery of our will and the needlessness of good works. The Presbyterians, too, have recently so amended their Calvinistic profession of faith as to strike from it the most offensive tenets.
In fact, even in Luther's time, the fruit produced by the tree which he had planted had become so bad that he was forced by what he saw and heard on all sides to lament the sad results. Thus he complained, saying:
The world grows worse and worse, and becomes more wicked every day. Men are now more given to revenge, more avaricious, more devoid of mercy, less modest, and more incorrigible, in fine, more wicked than in the Papacy.
In his Table Talk, he commented thus:
One thing no less astonishing than scandalous is to see that, since the pure doctrine of the Gospel has been brought to light, the world daily grows from bad to worse.
He would willingly have corrected some of his own teachings if he could have done so without stultifying himself before the whole world.