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Who Were the Early Anabaptists?

By Andrew V. Ste. Marie

Editor’s Note: Because of the nature of this article, several people or groups are mentioned before they are fully described. We suggest you read this article twice to get an understanding of how the different groups and people were inter-related during the Radical Reformation.


Who were the early Anabaptists? For centuries after their origin in 1525, their enemies have villainized the early Anabaptists and attempted to create bias against them. Names like “the radical left wing of the Reformation” were employed against these people, who were supposed to have been “antitrinitarian” (according to some accounts), “did not believe in the government”, “heretics”, or even immoral (polygamous). Although scholars have long since sorted out (albeit incompletely) the many Reformation-era groups which practiced adult baptism, confusion on the topic of who the Anabaptists were persists. This article will attempt to give an introduction to the various Anabaptist groups as well as show why generic references to “the Anabaptists” should be avoided.


What Does “Anabaptist” Mean?


The word “Anabaptist” (Weidertauffer in German) simply means “rebaptizer”. It was a term of derision used for the groups of radical Christian brethren who refused to be satisfied with the magisterial (state church) reform efforts of the Protestants. The name was also applied to other groups who practiced adult baptism. Therefore, it was from the beginning an extremely generic term.


Two Major Divisions of Anabaptists


Because of the generic nature of the term “Anabaptist”, it makes sense that there would be some variation amongst those who were thus named. The name was applied by their enemies, and it applies across the entire European continent and across fifty years of church history. With so much time and space encompassed by the name, quite a bit of variation is to be expected.

All of the early Anabaptist groups can be divided into two major categories: the Scriptural or evangelical Anabaptists and the fringe Anabaptists. The Scriptural Anabaptists were those whose main concern was to establish pure churches after the New Testament pattern. They held to “sola Scriptura” (although in a different manner from the Reformers) and believed in the New Birth. The fringe Anabaptists were all the other Reformation-era groups which practiced adult baptism but were not Scriptural in orientation like the evangelical/Scriptural/normative Anabaptists. As such, they make what paleontologists call a “wastebasket taxon” – a group where any difficult fossil is thrown! Of course, a few folks, such as Hans Hut and Hans Denck, are hard to group into either class, further complicating the picture.
In this article, I will first discuss in turn the major beliefs of all the Scriptural Anabaptists, then the distinctives of the different groups of Scriptural Anabaptists. The same will then be done for the fringe Anabaptists.


Major Beliefs of the Scriptural Anabaptists


Most Scriptural Anabaptists held strongly to the following beliefs:

1. Regeneration or the new birth is a radical event which completely transforms a filthy sinner into a truly holy saint.

2. Baptism is for regenerated people only.

3. They emphasized following Christ in life.

4. The church is a voluntary association of the regenerated, kept pure by the ban or excommunication, which has the purpose of giving the light of Christ to the world and helping each member on in following Him. This was accompanied by a belief in the separation of church and state (the church free from the interference of the state, the church not trying to run the affairs of the state).

5. All worldly force was rejected (nonresistance) as was serving in the government for Christians.

6. The swearing of oaths is rejected.


Groups of Scriptural Anabaptists


The Scriptural Anabaptists can be further subdivided into two smaller divisions before the level of individual groups: the non-communitarian and the communitarian. The communitarian Anabaptists favored full community of goods, where private property was totally eliminated. The non-communitarian Anabaptists favored brotherhood sharing and aid, but allowed private property to a certain extent. They said that all goods were “common” in the sense of being available for the use of the brotherhood. The non-communitarian groups will be outlined here first.


Swiss Brethren


Date of Origin: 1525
Major Leaders: Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, George Blaurock, Michael Sattler
Where name originated: Unknown; possibly because they originated in Switzerland and called each other “brothers”
Geographical Locations: Switzerland, southern Germany, Moravia
Mode of Baptism: Pouring & Immersion
Modern Descendants: Amish & most American Mennonites, Swiss Mennonites


The Swiss Brethren were the original group of Anabaptists. They originated in Zürich, Switzerland, where Ulrich Zwingli was leading the Reformation. A group of zealous young men – most notably Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz – followed Zwingli and enthusiastically supported him. Eventually, their study of the Scriptures showed them that they could no longer support Zwingli’s program, especially because he consistently capitulated to the demands of the Zürich Council in matters of church reform. The group finally stepped aside from Zwingli’s program in a visible way when they accepted water baptism by pouring in Felix Manz’s mother’s courtyard.

The Swiss Brethren group grew greatly in the early days and continued to grow for more than 100 years. Remnants of the Swiss Brethren (now called Mennonites) still persist in their native Switzerland. Most Mennonites and essentially all Amish in North America are descended from the Swiss Brethren.
The Swiss Brethren believed in nonresistance, nonswearing, the authority of the entire brotherhood in making decisions, the responsibility of the brotherhood to meet the needs of its own members, etc. They were heavily persecuted and met in barns, woods, etc. There is a cave near Zürich called the “Täuferhöhle”, or Anabaptist Cave, because of the Swiss Brethren meetings held there.
The origin of the name “Swiss Brethren” (German Schweizer Bruder) is unknown. It is sometimes assumed that the group received this name because they originated in Switzerland and called each other “brother”. The first known use of the name is in the Hutterite Chronicle, where it is stated that in 1542 that some former Philipites (who will be discussed later) joined the Swiss Brethren. The Hutterites seemed to use the term “Swiss Brethren” as a term of derision for the Philipites because the latter had abandoned community of goods and reverted to ownership of private property. One Moravian document says that the Schweizer Bruder received their name from Hans Schweizer, about whom nothing more is known. Wherever the name came from and regardless of whom it was first applied to, the term “Swiss Brethren” came to refer to that group of primarily Swiss and South German Anabaptists represented by Grebel, Manz, Blaurock, and Michael Sattler.


Dutch Mennonites


Date of Origin: 1530s
Major Leaders: Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leonaert Bouwens
Where name originated: from Menno Simons; invented by the Anabaptists’ enemies
Geographical Locations: the “Low Countries”, including the Netherlands and Northern Germany
Mode of Baptism: Pouring
Modern Descendants: a few American Mennonites, Dutch Mennonites, Russian (Old Colony) Mennonites


The Dutch Mennonites originated out of the confused mass of fringe Anabaptism in the Low Countries in the early to mid-1530s. Obbe and Dirk Philips, both illegitimate sons of a Catholic priest, joined the Anabaptist fellowship of the Melchiorites-turning-Münsterites. Obbe was baptized and ordained by Münsterite missionaries and began to baptize and ordain others, such as his brother Dirk, whom he ordained. When the Münsterites began to turn revolutionary, Dirk and Obbe stood – almost alone – against such ideas. The small circle of peaceful Anabaptists who stood against the revolutionary excesses of the Münsterites et al. became known as “Obbenites”, after Obbe Philips. It was this brotherhood which ordained other bishops, including David Joris, Adam Pastor, Gillis of Aachen, and Menno Simons.
After the fall of the “Anabaptist kingdom” of Münster, Obbe’s conscience was tormented by the fact that he had been deceived by these people and allowed himself to be baptized and ordained by them. He felt that his ordination was invalid. He eventually left the brotherhood which he had helped lead during its turbulent years. Leadership was left in the hands of Menno Simons and Dirk Philips. Menno proved to be a capable leader, and the Anabaptists’ enemies dubbed the church the “Mennist” or “Mennonist” church.
The Dutch Mennonites developed completely independently of the Swiss Brethren. During the Mennonites’ early years, there was no contact between them and other Scriptural forms of Anabaptism. They developed their convictions on the New Birth, separation from the world, the sword, the oath, etc., from the Scriptures. When they finally did contact the Swiss Brethren in the mid to late 1500s, they both had already formed their sets of basic convictions and found that in all but two points they agreed. The first of these points was how the excommunicated should be treated. The Swiss Brethren interpreted Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 5:11, “with such an one no not to eat,” as applying only to “eating” the Lord’s Supper. The Dutch Mennonites believed that this “eating” meant any eating, and that the excommunicated should be shunned. The second point of difference was that the Dutch ministers held to a different view of the Incarnation than the Swiss. However, not all of the Dutch Mennonites held this view; after the death of Menno and Dirk, the view seems to have died out among the Mennonites. The Dutch Mennonites also had a slightly different congregational practice from the Swiss. They were otherwise quite similar.

The Dutch Mennonites endured horrible persecution through the 1570s. Burning at the stake was the usual mode of execution, although beheading, drowning, and burying alive (for women) were also used. Once persecution stopped, the church began to relax, the people became rich and happy, and all that they had stood for amidst persecution began to slowly melt away. The group also began to splinter, beginning quite soon after Menno’s death and even before.


Communitarian Anabaptists


These groups of Anabaptists were either strictly communitarian or were communitarian at some point in their history.


Stäbler/Austerlitz Brethren/Pilgramites


Date of Origin: 1526
Major Leaders: Jacob Weidemann, Pilgram Marpeck
Where name originated: Stäbler = staff-bearers, after nonresistance; Austerlitz Brethren, after the city they lived in; Pilgramites, for Pilgram Marpeck
Geographical Locations: Moravia & southern Germany
Mode of Baptism: pouring & immersion
Modern Descendants: none; the Hutterites are indirect descendants


The Stäbler originated in a dispute between Balthasar Hubmaier and Hans Hut. Both were trying to establish Anabaptist congregations in the city of Nikolsburg. Hubmaier wanted a state church and did not accept nonresistance. Hut was nonresistant and refused to accept a state church. The congregation Hut founded became known as the Stäbler, staff-bearers, because they refused to carry swords. This group was left under the leadership of “one-eyed Jacob” Weidemann.

Weidemann soon began to teach community of goods, claiming that it was the mark of the true church. Nevertheless, his group did not practice it until they were expelled from the territory of the lords of Liechtenstein, who were members of the Schwertler (Hubmaier) group. The now very poor group put community of goods into practice as they left. Weidemann spread out a coat on the ground and his entire congregation put their goods in a heap on it. They thus earned another name, “those of the little heap”. Their most often-used name, however, was “Austerlitz Brethren”, because they moved to Austerlitz.
Pilgram Marpeck, an important early Anabaptist leader, appears to have originally been a member of the Austerlitz Brethren after his conversion and before his leaving the area for Strasbourg (southern Germany). Marpeck was, in a sense, a “bridge Anabaptist”. He tried to work for the reconciliation of all Anabaptist groups. His efforts, unfortunately, were unsuccessful. He was rebuffed by the Hutterites. He considered the Swiss Brethren to be legalists who were not a true church.

The Austerlitz Brethren and the other (Pilgramite) congregations associated with them seem on the whole to have been a bit more lax than other Anabaptist fellowships, particularly on separation from the world and the oath. The Austerlitz Brethren believed a Christian could swear oaths without sin. Marpeck’s view is unknown, but some of his associates accepted swearing on certain occasions.
The Austerlitz Brethren/Pilgramites (who may have referred to all of their churches by the name “Fellows of the Covenant”) eventually went extinct. The Austerlitz congregation itself scattered when the Anabaptists were expelled from Moravia; Jacob Weidemann was martyred in Vienna, Austria. After his death, remnants of his congregation joined the Hutterites. They had, before this, abandoned community of goods, with the other congregations they were in fellowship with. Marpeck’s congregations in southern Germany came to an end in about 1573; the last remnants of these churches were snuffed out by the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation in about 1620.

Although they have no direct modern descendants, the Hutterites – who still live in community of goods – are in a roundabout way the descendants of the original “ones of the little heap”.




Date of Origin: c. 1527
Major Leaders: Gabriel Ascherham
Where name originated: from Gabriel Ascherham
Geographical Locations: Silesia, Moravia, Poland
Modern Descendants: none


Gabriel Ascherham was an Anabaptist leader who established a communitarian church similar to the Hutterites. In 1531, at the suggestion of evangelist Jakob Hutter, the Gabrielite, Philipite, and proto-Hutterite communities bound themselves together in a loose union with Gabriel serving as bishop over all three communities. In 1533, upon Jakob Hutter’s return to Moravia, the union disintegrated in the Schism of 1533. When the Moravian nobles banished the Anabaptists from their territories, the Gabrielites abandoned community of goods and fled. Little is known of the development of Gabriel’s life and thought, but it is clear that he became a spiritualist in his later days – i.e., one who believes that if one’s heart is right and he has the Holy Spirit, everything is fine, regardless of what he does with Scriptural commands. Thus he justified infant baptism and even said that the unsaved children of believers could be baptized. He denounced the Hutterites for “legalism” and their view of community of goods. It seems that his followers, as a whole, were unwilling to go in Gabriel’s direction, and defected to the Hutterites. At the time of his death, Gabriel was a “shepherd without sheep”, as some have said. Most of the remnants of his followers eventually joined the Hutterites.




Date of Origin: c. 1527
Major Leaders: Philip Plener, Blasius Kühn
Where name originated: from Philip Plener
Geographical Locations: Moravia
Modern Descendants: none


Philip Plener was the elder of the Philipite community, another group of communitarian Anabaptists living in Moravia. His community grew because of the great numbers of Anabaptists coming to tolerant Moravia from other lands. Plener’s community eventually settled in Auspitz and established community of goods in 1529. In 1535, when the Anabaptists were expelled from Moravia, Plener and his assistant, Blasius Kühn, went about on horseback looking for a place to settle. Finding none, they announced to the group that each man would have to fend for himself. One group of Philipites went back to southern Germany, where they were probably absorbed into the Swiss Brethren. Others eventually joined the Hutterites.

One group of Philipites intended to return to Germany via the Danube River. Philip ordained Michael Schneider as the elder of this group. The Roman Catholics were alerted of the coming of these Anabaptists and caught the entire group and imprisoned them in the castle at Passau. Here they were imprisoned for five years. Although some were tortured, none were executed. A few died in prison and a few recanted and were released; others escaped. During their imprisonment, these Philipites wrote many hymns. These hymns were later used by the Hutterites and later by the Swiss Brethren as the core of the Ausbund, the German hymnbook still used by the Amish.




Date of Origin: c. 1527
Major Leaders: Jakob Hutter, Hans Amon, Peter Reidemann
Where name originated: from Jakob Hutter
Geographical Locations: Moravia, South Tyrol
Mode of Baptism: Pouring
Modern Descendants: Hutterites



The Hutterites had a rough starting as a group. Wilhelm Reublin, a Swiss Brethren evangelist and one of the original Zürich circle, joined the Austerlitz Brethren (Stäbler) and soon grew discontented with some of the rules and the actions of the leaders. He led a group away from the Austerlitz Brethren. Unfortunately, they soon found out the fact that they were united in their opposition to Jacob Weidemann did not mean they were united enough to be a church together. They experienced problems and Reublin was expelled as an Ananias because he preached community of goods but had kept some money secretly for himself. Jakob Hutter’s converts fleeing from South Tyrol then began to join the group, called at this point by historians the “proto-Hutterite community”. The group suffered through several other leaders and the Great Schism of 1533. After Jakob Hutter’s martyrdom, they came to be called Hutterites. They held to strict community of goods and nonresistance. They also opposed the paying of war taxes, as had Hans Hut and the Austerlitz Brethren. Unfortunately, some or perhaps many of them looked with scorn on all other groups of Anabaptists – particularly the Swiss Brethren.
Although the Hutterites had a rough start, they proved to be a very vigorous and zealous group of Anabaptists. Their missionaries roamed far and wide across Europe, even long after the Swiss Brethren had, for the most part, stopped evangelizing. Their well-organized communities made ambitious missionary projects possible which could not have been carried out by the less structured Swiss Brethren or Dutch Mennonites. The Hutterites survive today, chiefly in the western United States and Canada.



Fringe Anabaptists


There are many themes which recur several times among the fringe Anabaptists. These did not all occur in every fringe group, but they are common to more than one of these groups.


1. Belief in an invisible church. This means that they did not believe in an organized, “visible” church. Each person could do just fine all by himself, without Christian fellowship or organization being necessary. Thus all church authority was rejected as well as gathering together for fellowship and instruction.


2. Marginalization of baptism. Because of spiritualist/invisible church tendencies, baptism was often marginalized, up to and including outright rejection of adult/believer’s baptism. Thus in a sense, some of these groups hardly qualify for the label “Anabaptist”, even if we use that title very loosely.


3. Allowing the use of the sword.


4. Extra-biblical revelation, particularly in the form of special dreams and visions given to the prophets and prophetesses of the group.



Date of Origin: 1520s
Major Leaders: Balthasar Hubmaier, Hans Spittelmaier
Where name originated: Schwertler = sword bearers; from rejection of nonresistance
Geographical Locations: southern Germany, Nikolsburg
Mode of Baptism: Pouring
Modern Descendants: none


Balthasar Hubmaier was an able defender of the principle of believer’s baptism and is known as “the theologian of the Anabaptists”. He was perhaps one of the most well-educated Anabaptists of all, having been at one time head of a university. Although he fellowshipped for a time with the Swiss Brethren, he never agreed with them on nonresistance. He participated in the Peasant’s War of 1525 and even had two nonresistant Anabaptists banished from his Anabaptist city of Waldshut.

Hubmaier eventually attempted to establish an Anabaptist state church from his new home in Nikolsburg. He broke with Hans Hut over this issue and over the use of the sword. His opponents, the Stäbler, eventually developed into the Austerlitz Brethren and far outlasted his Schwertler party. Hubmaier was imprisoned in 1527 by the Roman Catholics and recanted what he felt were secondary points of minor significance, i.e., concerning Mary. He hoped thereby to obtain release, but his plan did not work. He was later burned at the stake, leaving his followers confused as to what direction he wanted them to take. His churches died out in 1529.




Date of Origin: 1530s
Major Leaders: Hans Denck, Ludwig Haetzer
Where name originated: over-emphasis of inner spiritual life at the expense of following Biblical commands
Geographical Locations: principally southern Germany
Modern Descendants: none


The Spiritualists were a group of Anabaptists principally associated with Strasbourg in what was then part of southern Germany (now in France). Hans Denck, a friend of Hans Hut, was perhaps one of the most important of these Anabaptists. He baptized others for a time but soon decided that inner baptism was all that mattered. Not long before his death, he promised to never baptize anyone again and also approved of the swearing of oaths. His spiritualistic thinking, that only what was inside mattered, led him to forsake some or all of his Anabaptist convictions.

These Spiritualists descended from the medieval Mystics, who had emphasized the rebirth of the spirit and other internal aspects of the Christian life. When these Spiritualist/Mystic Anabaptists encountered persecution because of baptism, they seem to have easily slipped back into the mentality of “outward things do not matter; only inward things do”.

Ludwig Haetzer was a friend of Hans Denck. Denck may have baptized him. He was a scholar who did much writing, including hymn writing, and translating of Old Testament and Apocryphal books into German. His connection to the Anabaptists is rather ambiguous; he was finally executed for adultery.




Date of Origin: c. 1528
Major Leaders: Oswald Glait, Andreas Fisher
Geographical Locations: Silesia
Modern Descendants: none


This is one group which it takes a “judgment call” to put in the fringe group or the Scriptural group. With no judging whether the people involved were born again or not, it was decided to place them in the fringe group because their making a significant issue of the Sabbath question was certainly not normative for most Anabaptists. In addition, they rejected, at least in part, a basic belief of the Scriptural Anabaptists – that the New Testament has superseded the Old.

About 1528, Oswald Glait, who had been an active Anabaptist leader for a short time, published a book defending the view of a literal observance of a seventh-day (Saturday) Sabbath rest. Andreas Fisher also wrote in defense of this view. Caspar Schwenckfeld, an opponent of Pilgram Marpeck, wrote a reply to Glait’s book and Martin Luther also wrote against these Anabaptists. When this movement died out is not certain, although it did not last long.





Date of Origin: 1530
Major Leaders: Melchior Hoffman
Where name originated: from Melchior Hoffman
Geographical Locations: Holland, Germany, England
Mode of Baptism: Pouring
Modern Descendants: none


Melchior Hoffman became a Lutheran early in life and in 1523 became a Lutheran preacher. He began to develop his ideas on prophecy, one of his favorite subjects, during his time as a Lutheran. His ideas on eschatology (end-times events), in addition to his lack of education (he was a simple furrier), resulted in his lack of acceptance among the Lutherans. In Strasbourg, he met and joined the Anabaptists. He was particularly drawn to a man and woman who claimed to have received prophetic visions. He soon published their “revelations”. Hoffman progressively grew convinced that he was Elijah who was to herald the coming of Christ. He visited the Netherlands and introduced Anabaptism there. When some of his followers were martyred, he recommended that baptism be suspended for two years because the building of the Second Temple had also been delayed for two years. Meanwhile, he continued to write and publish. He claimed that no one in his day preached the true Gospel. He looked with scorn on the Swiss Brethren. Finally, an aged Anabaptist from Friesland “prophesied” that Hoffman was indeed Elijah, that he would be imprisoned in Strasbourg for six months, then would be released and (with the help of other ministers) would spread Anabaptism over the whole world. Hoffman excitedly rushed back to Strasbourg, had himself arrested, and swore an oath that he would eat and drink nothing except bread and water until he could point to Jesus Himself. Ten years later, Melchior Hoffman died in prison.
Despite his strange teachings, Hoffman did embrace nonresistance and warned his followers against sedition, rebellion, and polygamy. After his death, his followers continued a policy of “invisible church” – conforming to accepted state church practices to avoid persecution. They eventually died out, although they still existed as late as 1560.



Date of Origin: 1530s
Major Leaders: Jan Mathys, Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Rothmann
Where name originated: from Münster, city which they believed would be the “New Jerusalem”
Geographical Locations: Netherlands, primarily Münster and Amsterdam
Modern Descendants: none


While Melchior Hoffman was convinced that he was Elijah, he and his followers could not for sure decide who should be recognized as “Enoch”. Caspar Schwenckfeld and Cornelius Polterman were the main contenders for the position. While Melchior Hoffman was imprisoned (before his first six months had expired), a new competitor for the title of “Enoch” appeared – a Dutch baker by the name of Jan Mathys. When he heard from some of the other Melchiorites that Polterman was Enoch, he threatened with hellfire any who dared to reject his claims. In this way, he was able to procure the submission of some of the Melchiorites.

Meanwhile, in the town of Münster, in Westphalia, Germany, a reformer named Bernhard Rothmann was dissatisfied with the Lutheran doctrines he was being forced by the town council to uphold. When Mathys arrived at the city, Rothmann joined the Anabaptists along with many from the city. Following a vision of three suns (probably just a display of sundogs), the Münster Anabaptists resorted to force and captured control of the city government. They promptly banished all who would not submit to rebaptism. Mathys then issued a call to all Anabaptists to come to the “New Jerusalem”, which, he claimed, was not to be Strasbourg as Melchior Hoffman had said but was actually to be Münster. He invited all oppressed Anabaptists – indeed, everyone – to come join the “Kingdom” at Münster, and thousands answered the call.

It was not long before a combined Catholic and Protestant army under the leadership of the Catholic Bishop of Münster had besieged the “Anabaptist Kingdom”. Mathys “prophesied” that the world would end on Easter Sunday, 1534. On that day he took a few of his men and tried to drive away the bishop’s army in Old Testament style. They failed and Mathys was killed.

After Mathys’ death, another man, Jan van Leiden, took over leadership of Münster. He had himself crowned king, eventually built himself a throne in the town square, and called himself the “third David” (Jesus being the second) and the “joyous king of all”. Leiden introduced polygamy into the “Kingdom” because of a shortage of men in the besieged city. As starvation set in, Leiden held amusements in the market place – such as dancing and theatricals – for the public amusement. This, of course, did not make the people forget their hunger. A revolt inside the city was brutally suppressed.
Finally, due to a betrayal from inside the city, the bishop’s armies were able to successfully invade Münster. Leiden and two of his associates were captured, put in iron cages, and toured around Europe for display. Leiden finally recanted his errors and admitted that he had never received revelations from God. The three were finally tortured to death and the cages were hung from the church tower in Münster, where they remain to this day.



Old Cloisterites


Date of Origin: 1535
Major Leaders: Jan van Geelen, Jan van Batenberg
Where name originated: from the Oldeklooster (Old Cloister) which they seized
Geographical Locations: Bolsward, Freisland, in the Netherlands
Modern Descendants: none


It is perhaps somewhat of an exaggeration to put the Old Cloisterites in a separate group from the Münsterites; indeed, Jan van Geelen, their leader, was one of the “twelve prophets” of Münster. Nevertheless, their story is distinct from the Münster story.

On March 30, 1535, some Melchiorites/Münsterites seized the Old Cloister in Bolsward, Friesland (Netherlands). They then wanted to take, by force, the entire province of Freisland. An imperial officer was given the task of retaking the monastery, a job which he found more difficult to do than he had supposed. He had to besiege the cloister, bombard it with artillery fire, and charge it three times. It fell on April 7. About 300 Anabaptists died in the fighting. Of the rest, 37 were instantly beheaded and 132 were taken prisoner. Of these, 55 were later executed. Jan van Geelen escaped harm!

It is a possibility that one of the participants in the Old Cloister event, Peter Simons, was a brother of Menno Simons.


Davidjorists or Davidians


Date of Origin: 1540s
Major Leaders: David Joris
Where name originated: from David Joris
Geographical Locations: primarily the Netherlands
Modern Descendants: none


As a young man, David Joris joined the Lutherans, then the Melchiorites, and finally the Obbenites. Among the Obbenites he was ordained a bishop. Before long, unfortunately, he became convinced that he was a “third David” who was receiving direct revelation from God. He claimed that Christ did not bring in a full revelation of truth, but that instead both Old and New Testaments were now superseded by his own writings. He believed in an invisible church and also believed that sin of the body does not affect the spirit. He allowed polygamy. Despite these weaknesses, he refused the use of the sword and did not agree with the Batenbergers on this point.

When Menno Simons warned against the false prophet in his famous book Foundation of Christian Doctrine, Joris took offense and wrote to Menno challenging him to a great battle. Menno replied in a brief letter, telling Joris in effect to not write to him anymore until he would accept the absolute authority of the Scriptures.

Tired of persecution, Joris finally took his family to Basel where, under the pseudonym Jan van Bruges, he claimed to be a Reformed refugee. He was allowed to stay and became one of the pillars of the Reformed state church there. Meanwhile, he continued to secretly correspond with his many followers. He died in Basel in 1556. Years after his death, a dispute among his followers revealed to the Basel authorities that the respected “Jan van Bruges” was really the notorious heretic, David Joris! The Reformed authorities then had his corpse dug up and burned with as many of his writings as they could find. Joris’s following eventually disintegrated, although it did not happen immediately following his death or his cremation.



Batenbergers or Zwaardgeesten


Date of Origin: 1535
Major Leaders: Jan van Batenberg
Where name originated: Batenbergers from Jan van Batenberg; Zwaardgeesten = “sword minded”
Geographical Locations: Netherlands
Modern Descendants: none


The Batenbergers were followers of Jan van Batenberg, who had been a participant in the incident at the Old Cloister. After the fall of Münster in 1535, remnants of the Münsterite group were attracted to the Batenbergers. They were essentially organized bandits, believing that it was right to rob church buildings and practice polygamy. van Batenberg believed that he was Elijah who was to appear before Christ. In December 1537, he was arrested. While in prison, he betrayed many Anabaptists and tried to convince the authorities that he had always opposed plans of plunder and attack (!). He was executed in 1538. Another of the Batenbergers’ leaders was executed in 1544. They seem to have gone extinct sometime in the 1550s.




Date of Origin: 1550s
Major Leaders: Adam Pastor
Where name originated: from Adam Pastor
Geographical Locations: Netherlands
Modern Descendants: none


The Adamites were the only Anabaptist group which was antitrinitarian. Adam Pastor (whose original name was Roelof Martens), the leader of the group, was a Catholic priest. He left the priesthood in 1533 and became a Münsterite. He later left the Münsterites and joined the Obbenites/Mennonites. Menno Simons ordained him an elder in the early or mid-1540s. Pastor later became an anti-trinitarian and questioned the deity of Jesus Christ. Three debates were held with him in 1547. Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, and other Mennonite bishops tried to show Pastor the error of his ways, but he refused to give up his theological opinions. Dirk Philips excommunicated him at the end of the last meeting, presumably acting in behalf of all the bishops.

Pastor continued to preach and attracted a small following. In order to counteract his influence, Menno Simons wrote a pamphlet titled Confession of the Triune God, which was originally circulated in handwritten form but was eventually printed. Dirk wrote a 20-stanza hymn, “You Christian Brothers Together,” and a letter against Pastor’s ideas.

In 1552, Pastor requested another discussion with the Mennonite bishops. He felt that he was not given a fair hearing in the three meetings of 1547. Menno and Dirk agreed and the meeting was held, but it was fruitless. Neither side would relent.

Pastor died sometime between 1560 and 1570 and his following disintegrated. Among all the known Dutch Anabaptist martyrs, only one (Herman van Vlekwijk) was known to be an antitrinitarian.


Is it Fair to say “the Anabaptists”?

Having seen the many different groups of people, some of them quite different from each other, which practiced adult baptism and were thus called “Anabaptists”, it is my opinion that it is not fair to say “the Anabaptists believed this” or “the Anabaptists practiced this” without clarification of exactly which Anabaptists are being referred to. In a sense, it cannot even be said that “the Anabaptists” practiced adult baptism because some groups (such as the Spiritualists) eventually abandoned the baptism of adults.

To say “the Anabaptists this” or “the Anabaptists that” would be comparable to saying “the pedobaptists believed and practiced this, that, or the next thing.” Among the pedobaptists were the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, and the Reformed (Calvinists/Zwinglians) – obviously a very disparate collection of groups. The only connecting link between all pedobaptists was the baptism of infants. The various pedobaptist groups did not even share their main arguments in support of pedobaptism. Because it would thus be unfair to talk about the pedobaptists as a homogenous group, it would also be unfair to talk of the Anabaptists as one homogenous group.





God has had His righteous remnant through all of time. It is my belief that in the sixteenth century, the Scriptural Anabaptists made up a good portion of that remnant. However, not everything called “Anabaptist” is necessarily good or wholesome. The days of the Reformation were filled with many strange characters and bizarre beliefs, but the Scriptural Anabaptists were able to steer clear of these influences for the most part. Their Biblical convictions live on today among their descendants, including the Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites.


1. The Anabaptist Story, by William Estep
2. Mennonites in Europe, by John Horsch
3. Hutterite Beginnings, by Werner O. Packull
4. The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler, by C. Arnold Snyder
5. The Drummer’s Wife, by Joseph Stoll
6. The Secret of the Strength, by Peter Hoover
7. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. by George H. Williams & Angel M. Mergal
8. The Writings of Dirk Philips, ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, & Alvin J. Beachy
9. The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, edited by J. C. Wenger
10. The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, edited by William Klassen & Walter Klaassen
11. Peter Riedemann’s Hutterite Confession of Faith, translated by John J. Friesen
12. They Harry the Good People Out of the Land, by John S. Oyer
13. Anabaptism in Outline, ed. by Walter Klaassen
14. “Pilgram Marpeck and the Fellows of the Covenant: The Short and Fragmentary History of the Rise and Decline of an Anabaptist Denominational Network,” by Martin Rothkegel, Mennonite Quarterly Review 85 (January 2011):7-36
15. Songs of the Ausbund, Vol. 1, by Ohio Amish Library
16. The following articles on the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (
 “Wideman, Jakob (d. 1535/6),” by Robert Friedmann
 “Austerlitz Brethren,” by Christian Hege
 “Ascherham, Gabriel (d. 1545),” by Robert Friedmann
 “Gabrielites,” by Robert Friedmann
 “Philippites,” by Robert Friedmann
 “Plener, Philipp (16th century),” by Robert Friedmann
 “Schwertler,” by Harold S. Bender
 “Denck, Hans (ca. 1500-1527),” by Christian Neff & Walter Fellmann
 “Haetzer, Ludwig (1500-1529),” by Gerhard Goeters
 “Sabbatarian Anabaptists,” by William Klassen
 “Sabbatarianism,” by Daniel Liechty
 “Melchior Hoffman,” by Christian Neff & Werner O. Packull
 “Melchiorites,” by Cornelius Krahn
 “Münster Anabaptists,” by Cornelius Krahn, Nanne van der Zijpp, & James M. Stayer
 “Oldeklooster (Friesland, Netherlands),” by Christian Neff & Nanne van der Zijpp
 “Batenburg, Jan van (1495-1538),” by Jacob Loosjes
 “David Joris (ca. 1501-1556),” by Gerhard Hein & Gary K. Waite
 “Adam Pastor (d.1560/70),” by Christian Neff & Harold S. Bender
 “Adamites,” by Nanne van der Zijpp
 “Antitrinitarianism,” by Robert Friedmann
 “Unitarianism,” by Harold S. Bender
 “God (Trinity), Doctrine of,” by James A. Reimer


Originally published in The Witness June 2012.