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The Early Anabaptists

Part I: Forerunners

Available languages: Deutsch


If we wish to grasp the significance of the early Anabaptist movement of Reformation times, we must first realize that it was not a new movement that had never previously existed.

When I visited Bertha W. Clark in Chicago, her first significant question to me was, “Where did this tiny flickering flame of the Anabaptist movement come from that appeared in so many places in Switzerland and Tirol? What was its source? ”1 This question is usually answered, “All these tiny flames came from the great fire lit by the rediscovery of the Bible in German-speaking lands.” Doubtless this is true to a large extent. And yet it cannot be accurate; for the Bible, especially the Gospels, had been much published as early as the fifteenth century, not only in Latin but in German as well.

With the Bible question we come straightaway upon the Waldenses and all the other similar movements. It was Ludwig Keller, Director of Archives in Basel, who first advanced the thesis that the Anabaptists had their roots in movements that form an unbroken chain with evangelical movements going back to the very earliest time of Christianity. This thesis may be open to challenge, but one cannot simply disregard Keller’s book of 1885 on the Reformation.2 In the years around 1885 the way opened to an understanding of Anabaptist history. During that time Josef Beck (1815-1887) and Johann Loserth (1846-1936) were drawing Anabaptist history more and more into the light. This was also the time when Emil Egli, a minister and licentiate of theology from Zurich, published his collection of documents of the Zurich Reformation (Aktensammlung zur Geschichte der Züricher Reformation in den Jahren 1519-1533), his work about the Zurich Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation (Die Züricher Wiedertäufer zur Reformationszeit), and his booklet on the history of the St. Gall Anabaptists (Die St. Galler Täufer). At this time, too, Carl Adolf Cornelius (1819-1903) verified the origins of the Münster movement.3 All these writers, together with several other leading church historians, demonstrated that up to that time the Anabaptist movement had not been done justice, owing to the prejudices of the official church. It is of historical significance that the Didache or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” and a wealth of Gospel texts were newly discovered at that time too.4 In addition, it was the era of new revival movements in connection with Oxford, which spread over England, Germany, and North America.5

Considering all this, it seems that God in his world government, through the interplay of hidden threads, intervenes in the spiritual world among men at very specific times and in very specific ways.

Keller well knew the objection that could be raised, namely, that the connection from the Anabaptists to earliest Christianity by an unbroken line of succession could not be proved. He said, “Here we are confronted with the same situation that until now has given us a false conception of the Anabaptists of Reformation times.” Previous historians confined themselves to names and dates that were of prime significance for the high policy of the state or the official churches. What was moving quietly below the surface, what influenced men’s hearts and their way of life without changing the state or the state churches, was not recorded. That is why we find among the historians of Jesus’ day practically nothing about the existence of Jesus, the Son of Mary. There are in fact only two passages, by Tacitus and Josephus, and even these are contested. No notice was taken of the movements based on the four Gospels except when their leaders collided with the state or the state churches. And they avoided collision since they had no desire to seek martyrdom for its own sake; they wanted to get on with their work. Certainly, they were ready at any time to be martyred if this was unavoidable – unavoidable in the sense that avoiding martyrdom would have betrayed the truth.

Similarly, Anabaptist history of Reformation times is found in the documents of state and state-church authorities only insofar as the movement clashed with these great powers. The movement must therefore have been much stronger than appears from these documents. The same is true of the old evangelical movements and their interconnections that stretch from the first to the sixteenth century.

Keller traces the origins of the Waldensian movement back to the Poor of Christ, who existed long before the twelfth century. The year 1218 is important, but as early as 1150 one can discern the movement commonly known as the Waldenses. For example, we know that in 1150 the Inquisitors of Cologne reported that these “heretics” baptized adults, basing their faith on the Gospel of Mark 16:16, and that for the sake of this baptism “they went into death not only patiently, but with enthusiasm.”6

Thus in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries we find powerful movements claiming the title “apostolic brothers.” From this name Keller concludes that these movements were connected with similar trends in the fifth and sixth centuries, since at that time decrees were issued against heretics that point to exactly the same kind of movement.7 Already in those days, as well as later in 1150, departure from the “true rule of faith” was declared to be sin and heresy, a crime against the state. Some say that this movement, commonly known as the Waldensian movement but calling itself simply “Christian brothers,” goes back as far as 315 A.D., to the time of Pope Sylvester.8

Here we come very close to Tertullian and the Montanists.9 In the year 1250 we learn from an Inquisitor of the Roman church that “they (the Waldenses) are the greatest danger to the church because they go back the farthest; one can say they have existed since the time of Pope Sylvester,” and second, “there is hardly any country in which this movement is not found.” Third, he considered the movement so dangerous because they spoke no blasphemies but excelled in piety. The Inquisitor continued:

These heretics are to be recognized by their way of life and their manner of speech. Their lives are orderly and modest, without arrogance. Their dress is neither costly nor disorderly. They avoid any transaction involving lies and deception or swearing oaths. They seek no riches. They lead chaste and pure lives. They are moderate in eating and drinking. They never go to a tavern for dancing or other such wanton pleasures…They are industrious, teaching and learning much…They are recognized by their modest speech, which avoids any exaggeration. One never hears a useless word or backbiting from them. They avoid lying and swearing.10

And he concluded that they were all the more dangerous!

David of Augsburg, another famous Inquisitor of the thirteenth century, reports, “The Poor of Lyons and the other brothers like them are all the more dangerous, the more they make a show of their piety…and appear humble and modest.”11

Because they were persecuted so severely by the Inquisition, they had to keep as quiet as possible. Names such as Winkeler and Grubenheimer, meaning people who had their homes in hideouts or in the woods, therefore appear in the fourteenth century. At the same time they were called “the good,” “the pure,” “the perfect.” (Strangely enough, the word “heretic” in its German form, Ketzer, is derived from the Greek word katharos, meaning “pure”). Further, they were called spirituales, that is, men of the Spirit, and enthusiastai. From all these names we are able to understand the character of the movement. The names attached to these old movements in all their shades of meaning were applied to the Anabaptists as well. This is true of all the names I have mentioned, as well as such odd names as magistri barbati, which means “bearded masters.” This name was applied both to the Waldensians and the early Anabaptists.12

A great deal could still be said about the early history of the brothers. There is, however, no doubt that the movement around Peter Waldo (c. 1177), who is wrongly considered to be the founder of the Waldenses, was closely connected with the movement around Arnold of Brescia, who died in Italy in 1155.13 Peter Waldo was simply a reformer and leader of the movement, not its founder.14 The Waldenses, then, were part of the movement that traced its origins to the disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ. They were of the opinion that with the Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester in the fourth century (from 315 A.D. on) primitive Christianity had come to an end, while until that time the forces of primitive Christianity had still been struggling against those of the official church. This thesis is confirmed by modern scholarship, although there is a tendency to put the date still further back, to the time of Tertullian. Pope Nicholas, too, is mentioned in this connection.

The Waldenses and related movements claimed that the authority of the apostles to bind and to loose was the basis of their faith and life. They appealed to the apostolic commission, which demanded an itinerant life of complete poverty to proclaim the Gospel to men. Their attitude to the state was one of great freedom. They knew they would necessarily be persecuted by the state--by every type of state. “Freedom and the Gospel” was the motto of men like Arnold of Brescia and Peter Waldo. By “Gospel” they meant the words of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount, his life and the redemption he brought. Their freedom was based on the Gospel; they desired no other freedom. Therefore their watchword was imitatio Christi, the discipleship of Christ.

It can be proved historically that Francis of Assisi and Thomas à Kempis (who belonged to the Catholic Church) were part of this movement in its broadest sense. Admittedly, Francis of Assisi represented the poverty of discipleship of Christ without the freedom of the Gospel; and Thomas à Kempis, discipleship without the freedom of the Gospel. Nevertheless they were within the sphere of influence of this powerful movement.15

Around 1177 this movement penetrated deep into Germany, especially to Frankfurt and Nuremberg, and into Bohemia. Already then we find evidence of adult baptism, the strictest concept of marriage, rejection of the established church, readiness to accept death enthusiastically for the sake of one’s convictions.16

The brothers had their own bishop, their own elder, among the itinerant preachers. They claimed apostolic succession for themselves, stating that around 1215 their first period of apostolic succession led to a second period.17 That was a time when severe persecution swept over them. In Strasbourg alone five hundred were arrested in 1212, people from all walks of life. This shows how strong the movement must have been in Strasbourg at that time (which, by the way, also throws a remarkable light on the activity of Meister Eckhardt in that city). The prisoners testified that there were many like them in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Bohemia. At that time eighty were burned at the stake. Their elder or bishop, Johannes, was among those burned. Face to face with death, he said, “We are all sinners; but not because of our faith or because of the vices we are accused of without cause. We expect the forgiveness of our sins from God, without human help and without the mediation of a priest.”18

It must be added that the name “Poor of Christ” (a name also given to the Franciscans, who were called minores – “lesser ones,” or “proletarians,”) proves that a link existed between the Waldenses and the Beguines and Beghards. The latter were active long before 1370 and were similar to the third order of St. Francis. The Beguines as sisters and the Beghards as brothers kept communal households, practicing community of goods. They cared in particular for the poor and the weak, for people who were physically or mentally handicapped. For themselves they also chose poverty and a life without possessions. They demanded utmost simplicity of dress, refusing to conform to fashion. Therefore their dress developed a certain uniformity, though it did not really become a monastic garb. Because they cared for the homeless, the poor, the weak, and the sick, they were forerunners of the deaconesses. They also worked in the field of education, bringing to mind the rural boarding schools of twentieth-century Germany. They worked communally.

As early as 1230 we read of congregations where the poor lived together and worked for the poor. Their opponents spoke ironically of their places as “poorhouses” and “workhouses” – a mockery that could apply to the present-day Bruderhofs as well. They themselves, however, called their communal settlements “houses of God.” They tackled the social problem just as seriously as the religious one. They solved it by having their goods in common and by working in community. And while tackling the religious-social problem, they came to grips with the educational problem as well and solved it by establishing special schools and centers of education. As a result people gave them the nickname “the young folks’ good people” or “the good boys.” They called themselves “apostles,” a name that was current since before the time of Peter Waldo, who was active in southern France around 1177. In 1306 the Archbishop of Cologne said that these people had been called “Beguines, Beghards, and apostles” since old times. They were also called “friends of God,” especially in the Rhine district; also “apostolic brothers,” “bearded men,” and “witnesses.” The movement was a large one indeed.19

These movements confessed to the inspiration of Christ’s Spirit. They believed that the Bible was inspired, especially the Gospels, and so were the apostles. They confessed particularly to the words of Jesus, to his commands and his commissions. They believed that Christ was with them according to his promise, “Lo, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.” They believed that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, entered into the hearts of those who were dedicated to Christ. Thus they believed that the same Spirit was at work in the Gospels and in the words of the apostles. They attached special importance to the words of Christ, considering them evangelical commandments; the Roman Catholic Church calls the same words the “evangelical counsels.”20

Christ’s whole life was an example to them. They wanted to follow him, to go the same way he had gone. Therefore they followed the evangelical commandment or counsel to deny oneself and follow Jesus and often called themselves “followers of Christ.” Their lives were to be no different from the life Jesus himself had lived, in both its inner nature and its outward form. They believed in the Spirit of truth. They believed that this Spirit is imparted to all Christ’s disciples. The Spirit brings healing and strengthening of the will, which means freedom of will. The Spirit makes the inward eye sharp to distinguish good from evil, the Christlike from the antichristlike. The Spirit of truth illumines the heart through deep inner revelation. He writes the Word of God into heart and conscience. Jesus’ redemption and the discipleship of Christ become reality in the heart through Christ’s Spirit.

To the apostolic brothers the inner light is the seed, the grain of salt, of Christ’s power. The inner light constantly reminds us of all that Jesus said, especially his Sermon on the Mount. To these brothers the Sermon on the Mount is the evangelion katexochen – the Gospel at its sharpest and most definite, and in its clearest and broadest form. As a result, the brothers always stressed, “Deal with others as you would have them deal with you.” Compassion and purity are the characteristics of this new attitude toward men. If I want to do for people what I hope they will do for me, I cannot be richer than others. I must neither judge them nor criticize them. Nor can I kill them, regardless of who commands it.21 I for my part cannot recognize or carry out any death sentence. Therefore I cannot hold public office, because I live only for the Kingdom of peace and love, as Jesus lived for it. I cannot serve any vengeance, either on a personal or governmental level. Even self-defense is denied to me as a follower of Jesus. Discipleship of Jesus binds me to such honesty and trust that I can neither accept nor take any oath. I am called to such great trust that I must love my enemies with a special trust. In this context one of the Waldenses said, “Love to one’s friends alone is a small love. The great and all-embracing love means loving even one’s enemies.” Therefore we cannot answer abuse with abuse or avenge evil with evil.

All this was represented by the brothers with the support of the true church. The direct, spontaneous working of grace is linked to the true church. Those who follow Christ and obey his words belong to his church. True love exists only where God is loved; it is love to the church and love to one’s enemies.

Read the second of this two-part series: The Early Anabaptists Part II.

Note: This article was taken from a lecture given by Eberhard Arnold on November 10, 1935 and was first printed in English as the booklet The Early Anabaptists(Plough 1970).


1. Bertha W. Clark, “The Hutterian Communities. I,” The Journal of Political Economy, XXXII (June 1924), 357-374.
2. Ludwig Keller, Die Reformation und die älteren Reformparteien (Leipzig, 1885); Robert Friedman, “Old Evangelical Brotherhoods: Theory and Fact,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review (MQR) XXXVI (1962), 349-354; Ernst Troeltsch, T
3. The Mennonite Encyclopedia (ME), I, 714-715 mentions Cornelius’s smaller works (1851-1853) on this movement as well as his principal work, Geschichte des Münsterischen Aufruhrs, I and II (1855 and 1860) and part of his studies for a third volume (unfinished) published in various periodicals.
4. Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians After the Death of the Apostles, selected and edited from all the sources of the first centuries, 2nd ed. (Rifton, NY, Plough Publishing House, 1972), Didache, pp. 181-189; for other Gospel texts (e.g. the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, the Freer Logion, the Strasbourg Coptic Gospel Fragment, the Epistle of the Apostles) see Index.
5. Karl Kupisch. Studenten entdecken die Bibel. Die Geschichte der Deutschen Christlichen Studenten-Vereinigung DCSV ( Hamburg, 1964). D. L. Moody and Robert P. Smith, at a conference in Oxford in 1874, won German representatives for evangelism. Later John Mott’s influence was widespread, especially among university students.
6. Keller, 17-19, 23.
7. Keller, 395-396.
8. Keller, 1-2, 66.
9. Arnold, 42-43, 300ff., 352, 407-410 passim.
10. Keller, 5-6.
11. Keller, 7-8.
12. Keller, 9-12.
13. Elgin S. Moyer, Who Was Who in Church History (Chicago, 1968), 19-20.
14. Keller, 17.
15. Keller, 18-21, 66. Friedmann, MQR, 349.
16. Keller, 23.
17. Keller, 25 footnote 6, 71.
18. Keller, 26; Thieleman J. van Braght, Martyrs Mirror (Scottsdale, 1951), 309-310.
19. Keller, 28-35.
20. For the beliefs held by these movements, see Keller, 36-62.
21. Karl Kautsky in his book Vorläufer des neueren Sozialismus, Vol. II: Der Kommunismus in der deutschen Reformation (Stuttgart, 1913), 128-129, also stresses the peace-loving tendencies of the Waldenses and the Beghards in Switzerland.

statue of peter waldo Peter Waldo
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Contributed By Eberhard Arnold Eberhard Arnold

Eberhard Arnold was a theologian, educator, publisher, and community leader.

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