Anabaptists are the originators of the “free church.” Separation of church and state was an unthinkable and radical notion when it was introduced by the Anabaptists. Likewise their defense of religious liberty was regarded as an invitation to anarchy.
In the court records of 16th century South and Central Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, only 12,522 Anabaptists can be counted. Their numbers were never very large, yet they managed to populate 2088 towns and villages of that region!
Protestantism did not make inroads without the backing of princes and powers of state. From the beginning Anabaptism was anunderground movement that lost virtually all its leaders in the first two years.
It was partly because of Anabaptism that Protestant churches adopted the confirmation service, and baptismal registers (the boon of genealogists) came into being.
A 16th century man who did not drink to excess, curse, or abuse his workmen or family could be suspected of being an Anabaptist and thus persecuted.
Anabaptists were the first reformers to practice church discipline. Under their influence the Reformer Martin Bucer attempted without success to introduce discipline into the church in Strassburg. He succeeded in convincing John Calvin, who was able to establish church discipline in Geneva. Without knowing when the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession was formulated, Calvinread it in 1544 and concluded “these unfortunate and ungrateful people have learned this teaching and some other correct views from us.” Calvin was an 18-year-old Catholic at the time of Schleitheim.
Direct decendants of Anabaptists today number 730,000 in 57 countries, with the largest numbers in North America, Zaire, Indonesia, and the U.S.S.R. Over half live in third world countries. There are 21 distinct groups, among them Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Mennonite Brethren, and Brethren In Christ.
Facing arrest as an Anabaptist, Dirck Willems fled for his life across a frozen lake. When his pursuer broke through the ice,Willems gave up his chance to escape by turning to save his persecutor. He was then captured, imprisoned and burned at the stake in 1569.
Mennonites are the most diverse group of modern day descendants. They share a common view of Christ and in not bearing arms but are not uniformly distinguished by a separation from the world in lifestyle or dress.
The Amish split from their Swiss-German brethren in 1693 over the issue of shunning or avoiding excommunicated members. Today Amish are recognized for their strong communal values enforced by strict nonconformity to the world in matters of dress and use of technology. Amish are located primarily in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.
The Hutterites, who originated in Moravia in 1529, practice Christian communalism. They dress simply in a style influenced by the folk costume of eastern Europe. In the 1870’s they migrated to America and settled in South Dakota and later in other western parts of the U.S. and Canada.
The Mennonite Brethren had their beginning in 1860 as a renewal movement among transplanted Dutch Mennonites in southern Russia but has since been transplanted to North America, Paraguay, and other countries. The Mennonite Brethren distinguished themselves from Mennonites, not in the area of belief, but in the practice of baptism by immersion, rather than sprinkling.
The Brethren in Christ originated in 1750 in Pennsylvania but only gained official status during the Civil War when their young men were drafted into the army. They were nicknamed “River Brethren” because of their habit of baptizing in a river.