Read the first part of this two-part series: The Early Anabaptists Part I

The original Anabaptist movement was closely connected with those earlier movements. We see this in the fact that, according to existing records, the brothers who later founded the Anabaptist movement took part in meetings of those circles both in Basel and in Zurich. Their opponents called such a circle of “spirituals” a “school of heretics.” 22

The basic ideas, found as early as 1515 in Basel and Zurich, are the same as those the Anabaptists represented later. Staupitz represented the same principles in Nuremberg in 1515. Basel was a center of the German book trade and printing. Nuremberg was a center for all the brotherhood movements as well as a cultural center of the time. Luther was led to the Gospel by Staupitz. Staupitz had contact with the old evangelical church through the old patrician families in Nuremberg, especially the Tucher family, but also Albrecht Dürer and Hans Sachs. Zwingli’s closest friends were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz. Manz had been at home in the circles of the Old Brothers in Basel and Zurich.23

It is clear, then, that in the movement generally called Anabaptist we are not dealing with a human invention or the ideas of individual leaders. The school of heretics in Zurich and also in St. Gall was called “reading of the spirituals” because they read old heretical writings and especially the Bible.24

It can be proved that Zwingli was in contact with the school of heretics in Zurich. Zwingli’s original opposition to charging interest and to capitalism stems from this school. As late as 1523 Grebel wrote to his brother-in-law, Joachim Vadian, who was a member of the Great Council of St. Gall, that interest and tithes would soon be abolished in Zurich with Zwingli’s agreement. A month later, unfortunately, he had to write that Zwingli had defected from his own convictions and had agreed with the decision of the Council, which had come out in favor of tithes and of charging interest. This came about because Zwingli was convinced that the reformed church could not exist without the help of the state.25 He felt that compromise with the state was essential for the movement to overcome Catholicism; the movement needed the power of the state.

The attitude to the state is the decisive difference between Zwingli and those who until then had been his friends. But note well – the attitude to the state resulted from the attitude to the church! Zwingli was of the opinion that the state’s cultural task must be supported; in the hands of the state, the organized church must serve the state’s cultural task, and the state must be Christianized.26

The separation between Zwingli and Grebel, who had been particularly close friends, had to do with the problem of church and state. The two go together; not the church problem apart from the state problem, but the two seen together as one problem – that is what divided Zwingli and Grebel. This was quite clear to Zwingli, and he expressed it repeatedly. He conceded, for instance, that baptism in itself would not be important enough to arrest and execute people. He often declared infant baptism to be unjustified, but he felt he had to resist the Anabaptists because in baptism they had found the symbol of their dissenting attitude to church and state. Zwingli repeatedly referred to what Grebel and others had said to the effect that there was no better way of coming to grips with the state or of eluding it than through baptism. In this very concern for the true church as opposed to Roman Catholicism and in the concern about injustice committed by the state, the Anabaptists saw in baptism the token for separation of church and state.27

Waldensian tradition had always declared that apostles of Jesus Christ cannot fulfill any political function. The believing church of Jesus Christ cannot uphold any political order. The believing church follows Jesus Christ’s commands and thus needs no state laws. The state exists for the suppression of evil in an ungodly and satanic world. It is not for the believing disciples of Jesus Christ to suppress evil in the world around them; they are redeemed from evil.28

Zwingli saw the church as a state-constituted society based on law. The church of the brothers was a community of heart and life based on the Spirit. It could be a voluntary church only; it could be a church only through the inspiration of the Spirit.29 Thus as early as October 1523, two years before the abolition of the mass, Simon Stumpf told Zwingli he should on no account give the power of abolishing the mass to the Zurich City Council, that is, to the government. As a Christian, Zwingli had no authority to place such religious matters as the abolition of the mass in the hands of the government: “Master Ulrich, you do not have the right to place the decision on this matter in the hands of my lords, for the decision has already been made, the Spirit of God decides.”30

Thus, believers who were to advocate adult baptism in 1525 represented two years earlier that the state authorities cannot be allowed to have anything to do with the church, and vice versa. The tremendous success Luther and Zwingli achieved outwardly was due to their going along with the state, but their ideas of reformation had long been advocated very clearly, perhaps even centuries before, by the brotherhood movements, especially by Staupitz and the other brothers. By resorting to the power of the state, Luther and Zwingli betrayed the Gospel. They wanted to win the masses. They represented that the Gospel sets too high a standard for the common people to live up to!31

The differences, then, are obvious. For instance, Zwingli could never have agreed with the refusal to swear oaths. He himself said, “To the Eidgenossen [“comrades of the oath,” as Swiss citizens are called], the oath has since olden days been a solemn declaration of their allegiance to the state. It is therefore an unavoidable necessity.” To the brothers the name Schweizer Eidgenossen was repugnant because it showed the antichristian nature of the Swiss state. The same contrast existed in the question of bearing arms, the question of nonviolence. For Zwingli the bearing of arms was the glory of his republican consciousness, the citizen’s badge of honor, a sign of love for the fatherland. And so he fell in battle at Kappel in 1531.32

Zwingli wanted the state to control matters of faith. The apostolic brothers declared that the state had nothing to do with these matters. The state cannot exist without court law, sword, or prison. To the brothers, any mixing of the state’s affairs with the apostolic task was an insult to the apostles.

So the brothers, including those later called Anabaptists, demonstrated again and again that the state existed on the basis of Roman law, that even the republican states lived according to the imperial law of Rome, and that therefore the nature of the state was pagan and Roman, not even Old Testament or Mosaic; it had nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.33 The disunity between Zwingli and his friends was bound to be extreme; the antithesis was bound to reach a climax. This went so far that Zwingli agreed to the execution of his former friend Felix Manz.

For a time Nuremberg and Basel became the two centers that replaced Strasbourg, the former center of the brotherhood movement. We will not say much about Nuremberg at this point, because that historical line leads particularly to Luther, Müntzer, Staupitz, and Hans Hut. Between Nuremberg and Basel there was very close contact, especially of the Nuremberg printers and artists and those of Basel. The outstanding printers in Basel were Amerbach, Froben, and Petri. Eminent artists, scholars, and able businessmen, such as Pamphilus Gengenbach, Andreas Cratander, and Valentin Curio, were active in the printshops. These names point to a strong tie with Zwingli and the brothers in Zurich, for Basel had a strong influence on Zurich, while on the other hand Basel also had strong connections with Lyons and other Waldensian centers, for example with Franz Lambert of Avignon. Hans Holbein, too, kept up a lively contact with these circles and supplied woodcuts for various books printed in Basel.”34

In no other century have scholars, artists, and craftsmen worked together in such a brotherly way as here at Basel. Hans Holbein and Hans Franck in particular were part of the Brotherhood of Heaven. This brotherhood accepted into membership especially craftsmen, printers, and scholars. At that time Erasmus of Rotterdam also lived in Basel and was in touch with this circle. Oecolampadius, the reformer of Basel, and Hans Denck had contact with the circle around Erasmus as early as 1515. To this circle also belonged a close friend of the young patrician Conrad Grebel: Heinrich Loriti from Ennenda in Glarus, who had connections with other people in Basel as well. Apart from him, those especially worthy of mention are Michael Bentinus (a friend of Hans Denck’s), Richard Crocus, Wolfgang Capito, and Johann Oecolampadius.35

This circle met in chapter brotherhoods concentrating on the New Testament, the study of Greek language and grammar, and such scholarly research as was important to them for a better understanding of the New Testament. In 1523 Hans Denck published a complete Greek edition of the grammar of Theodore Gaza of Thessalonica, which was printed by Valentin Curio. On the title page Denck wrote a verse in Greek, revealing his identity as the editor. From Basel, Erasmus wrote in 1516, “I am in a veritable seat of the Muses. There is no one here in Basel who does not know Latin and Greek, and most of them Hebrew too. One person is better versed in history, another in mathematics, the antiquities, or jurisprudence.” He was particularly impressed by the friendship and harmony among them.

Oecolampadius wrote to Pirkheimer at Nuremberg that one of the main principles of the community founded later had already been stated in this circle in 1515. Already in 1514, the holy communion of the Roman Catholic Church had been attacked at Basel. Thus Oecolampadius shows that the ideas of the Anabaptists were being voiced in Switzerland as early as 1515. Keller makes a point that it was not as though something new had been discovered; these were the old ideas of the brotherhood.36

We have no time to go into the old Bible translations; there are many incunabula of the Bible in German traceable to the period before the year 1500, and in the fifteenth century ninety-eight complete editions of the Bible in Latin were in circulation. In Germany eighteen complete Bible editions and many partial ones appeared in German between 1466 and 1518. In 1494 Sebastian Brant’s poem Narrenschiff (“Ship of Fools”) said quite rightly, “All lands are now full of Holy Scripture.” It is striking that in these old Bibles the likeness of the pope was painted among the devils of apocalyptic hell. This shows that these Bibles were not published by Catholics, but by brothers who later merged with the Anabaptists.37

Only at this point can we appreciate the significance of these words found in the Hutterian chronicles: “In the year 1525 the long-suppressed church (or church-community) began to raise her head again.” That is to say, this true church, this community, had previously been there, but now she raised her head as she had not done before. She raised her head in the sense that she no longer worked in obscurity, but in the broadest spheres of public life. The first great period of the Anabaptist movement gathered such large numbers of people within its ranks and had such an impetus of Spirit and power that it was equal in influence and importance to the Catholic and Protestant churches of that time.38

The true name of the supporters of this movement was not Anabaptists (meaning re-baptizers) but simply Christians and brothers, or “evangelicals,” as they had called themselves for many centuries. Consequently the writings of the brothers in Zurich since 1525 speak of the Zwinglians and Lutherans as “new evangelicals” and of themselves as “evangelicals,” as those who conform to the Gospels. Later, when they were being suppressed by the state, they called themselves “old evangelicals” in contrast to the Lutherans and the “new evangelicals,” because their name was derived exclusively from the Gospel and their deeds as well were in accordance with the Gospel.39 Love was the hallmark of their faith. It was their whole being. This is borne out by all their songs and confessions and by the records of their martyrdoms.

This movement, then, was a renewal of the old brotherhood movement, which took place in quiet between the years 1515 and 1523. In the time from 1523 to 1525 it became generally known in Zurich. Grebel’s religious convictions, which he later confirmed through baptism, can be documented already for the year 1523. It was the time when Conrad Grebel lived in Zurich and was still a close friend of Zwingli’s.40 The communities of the brothers experienced an inner rebirth and the powerful emergence of an existing movement.

This inner rebirth of the true church, of brotherhood and itinerant apostolic mission, had first been prepared in the minds of scholars in Basel and Zurich during the period from 1515 to 1523. Basel was the foremost meeting place of the men who were later to lead the movement. Hubmaier, Denck, and Grebel are the well-known names among those who were in Basel at that time. It is interesting that the Frenchman, Jean Canaye, wrote in 1524 about Basel that it had become a haven of refuge and salvation, adding, “Basel is truly a royal city, for the King of kings wants his Gospel and his eternal laws to flourish and to be read and proclaimed there!”41 Until 1525, the advocates of the evangelical movement in Basel championed the same point of view concerning the Gospels that Grebel later defended in Zurich, Hubmaier in Waldshut, Denck in Nuremberg, and Oecolampadius, the reformer, in Basel itself.

The struggle over baptism began in Basel in 1523, partly even earlier. In the summer of 1524 Erasmus was aware that there were many in Basel who opposed infant baptism. In 1522 Coccinius Doggius had published in Basel certain theses by Ulrich Hugwald which he said Hugwald had represented already in the winter of 1521-1522. Six of these favored baptism on confession of faith.42

In that same year the statutes of the “Heavenly Brotherhood,” as it was called, were newly ratified. These statutes already contain the basis for the teaching and constitution of the brothers later known as the Anabaptists. In 1524 there were some important chapter meetings held in Basel, as they are known to have been held by the brothers since much earlier times. There still exists a handwritten invitation by Hubmaier dated June 11, 1524, asking the brothers to come to his house with their Bibles for the next chapter meeting. He mentions an agenda of eighteen theses on religious questions and reminds them of the bond of brotherly love, the holiness of Christian peace, and the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. He adds that these chapters or brotherhood meetings are an old tradition passed on from apostolic times and that they used to be called “synods.”

The members who took part in these chapter meetings were well known in the Basel printing houses too. The books of the old “Friends of God” were published by these printers, and so were (in about 1523) the writings of John Wycliffe, Johann Wessel of Groningen, and especially Marsilius of Padua, all men later excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church as heretics. In 1522 the Fridschirmbuch (“Defender of Peace Book”) was printed by Valentin Curio, whose associate and proofreader at that time was Hans Denck.