The Anabaptists

Church Leadership


by Joel Comiskey

This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”

Dirk Willems of Holland was re-baptized when he became a believer, rejecting the infant baptism practiced at that time. This action, plus his continued devotion to his new faith, led to his arrest and martyrdom. An officer came to arrest him at the village of Asperen. Running for his life, Dirk came to a frozen pond. After making his way across in great peril, he realized that his pursuer had fallen through the ice, and into the freezing water.

Turning back to save the drowning officer, Dirk dragged him safely to shore. The man wanted to release Dirk, but a chief magistrate, having appeared on the scene, reminded him that he was under oath to deliver criminals to justice. Dirk was bound off to prison, interrogated, and tortured in an unsuccessful effort to make him renounce his faith.

He was tried and found guilty of having been re-baptized, of holding secret meetings in his home, and of allowing baptism there—all of which he freely confessed. “Persisting obstinately in his opinion,” Dirk was burned at the stake near his hometown on May 16, 1569—enduring it with great steadfastness.

Adult Baptism

The Anabaptists believed in the reformation teachings of Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. They agreed with the biblical doctrines of justification by faith and that the Bible was the sole basis for authority in the Christian life. Yet, both Protestants and Catholics rejected the Anabaptists, and even hunted them down. The Anabaptist movement’s most distinctive, and hated tenet was adult baptism, which was a crime punishable by death under the legal codes of the time.

Living in an age of religious pluralism, we wonder why people in the sixteenth century would be tortured or drowned over baptism. The fierce resistance to this practice had more to do with culture than Christianity. In other words, to be baptized was a civil issue, and those who refused to be baptized as an infant tore at the seams of a Christian society. When Luther, Zwingli, and others led their movements away from Catholicism, many practices were changed. But infant baptism, the accepted baptismal mode for most of Christian history, was not. Baptizing only adults tore at the heart of both church and state.

Many prefer the name radical reformation when referring to the Anabaptist movement. In fact, those within the movement rejected the label Anabaptist, which literally means rebaptizer. They repudiated their own baptism as infants as a blasphemous formality. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. They held that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, repent, and accept baptism.

Although Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist martyr put to death for conducting illegal baptisms, many more martyrs followed. Latham notes, “Their re-baptism was the action of disobedience which placed them in direct opposition to the secular and religious authorities.”1 And the state church reacted by persecuting them severely. Latourette says, “Late in the 1520s and early in the 1530s hundreds of Anabaptists were killed, some by drowning, some by beheading, and others by burning.”2

Reforming the Church

The Anabaptists believed that the church, the community of those who have made a public commitment of faith, should be separated from the state, which they believed existed only for the punishment of sinners. They were determined to restore the institutions and spirit of the primitive church and identified their sufferings with the early martyrs. Confident that they were living at the end of time, they expected the imminent return of Jesus Christ.

The seriousness of their Christianity and their commitment to discipleship can be seen by the fact that they would often meet together four or five times per week.3 Writing about their commitment, Jane Holly Latham says,

When someone followed the Anabaptist doctrine, he/she was expected to separate him/herself from the world and follow a new way of life. The new way of life excluded them from most of their community’s social functions.4

The Anabaptists clung to the priesthood of all believers. They resisted the tendency of the magisterial church to dictate who should lead the church. John D. Roth says,

In contrast to the social and class distinctions that persisted in the magisterial churches, Anabaptists insisted that within the gathered community no one ought to lord over anyone else. Upon baptism, each male promised to accept the responsibilities of leadership but the final selection of leaders was left to the providence of God.5

The radical brethren longed to move closer to New Testament Christianity and to emphasize the priesthood of each believer.

Lay-Led Cells

In 1522, those with Anabaptist tendencies gathered in homes for small, private meetings. These meetings expanded into a wave of lay reading groups, which met mainly in Zurich and the surrounding area. They met together to strengthen their faith and grow in biblical knowledge. At one time even Zwingli, the Zurich reformer, attended and promoted these small groups, commenting that as a result of these meetings the lay people were better acquainted with the Scriptures than some priests.6

Their meetings were clear examples of lay-led cell group gatherings. They saw themselves as Christ’s church meeting in homes. Latham comments,

The Brethren came together because they felt that the limits of the Zwinglian reforms were suppressing the truth. Meeting together in private, the Brethren hoped to discover the truth and obtain scriptural guidance for church reforms, which they believed were being suppressed by Zwingli and the Town Council.7

They desired to return to primitive Christianity and meeting in small groups gave them ample opportunity to practice the priesthood of all believers. However, in 1523, Anabaptists Conrad Grebel and Simon Stumpf proposed that the church should be separated from the rest of society in order to establish a church consisting solely of true Christians. This idea took their reforms one step further and caused Zwingli, the official reform leader in Zurich, to strongly disagree and even oppose the Anabaptists.8

Circumstantial Necessity for Small Groups

Although small groups played a vital part of the Anabaptist movement throughout the sixteenth century, it’s hard to say whether or not the Anabaptists met in homes due to their theological convictions or because of circumstantial necessity. Latham concludes her dissertation on the Anabaptist movement by saying,

As well as being used as an effective means of evangelism and cultivation of the Anabaptist faith, the small group was also employed out of necessity. Anabaptists met in small groups because all Anabaptist activity was illegal. The Anabaptist concept of the church as a gathered community combined together to produce the small group meeting as the movement’s main mode of existence.9

Would the Anabaptists have constructed their own buildings if they could have done so? Or was their small group meetings a matter of choice? According to Jim and Carol Plueddemann, even after the Anabaptist persecution waned, they still preferred to meet in homes because they felt it was closer to the practice of the early church.10 They eventually came to believe that they were fulfilling the functions of the true church (as opposed to the state church) and that their home groups helped emphasize the church as a group of believing, baptized adults.

Lessons Learned

  • The Anabaptists, unlike many of the earlier reformers, believed that only baptized adults should gather as the church.
  • They rejected the ecclesiastical institutions that baptized infants, seeing this as subversive to true Christianity.
  • They were willing to resist the state church and live out the reforms of Luther and the other reformers, although they were severely persecuted for it.
  • The Anabaptist movement can best be compared with the early house church movement that freely met together as committed believers.
  • While many reformers only talked about the reformation of the church and the priesthood of all believers, the Anabaptists paid for this reform with their own lives


  1. Jane Holly Latham, “In Search of the True Church: An Examination of the Significance of Small Groups within Early Anabaptism and Pietism” (M.A. thesis, Acadia University, 1992), p. 24.
  2. Latourette, p. 782.
  3. Tan, p. 46.
  4. Latham, p. 12.
  5. John D. Roth, “Pietism and the Anabaptist,” The Dilemma of Anabaptist Piety, chapter 1, Stephen L. Longenecker, ed. (Bridgewater, VA: Penobscot Press, 1997), p. 26.
  6. Latham, p. 15.
  7. Ibid., p. 17.
  8. Ibid., p. 17.
  9. Latham, pp. 110–111.
  10. Jim and Carol Plueddemann, Pilgrims in Progress (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1990), pp. 6–7.