What Is an Anabaptist? (From an Ex-Mennonite)
Almost everyone in the world has heard of the two major branches of Christianity — Catholics and Protestants.
But very few know of a third branch — Anabaptists.
Anabaptists are the overarching ideology of many small, community-based denominations of Christianity, including the Amish and Mennonites.
So what makes them different? Why aren't Amish and Mennonites considered Protestants? And what makes Anabaptists so different from mainline Christianity?
We'll answer all of those questions (plus a few more) below, all from my perspective of growing up Mennonite, being baptized Mennonite, and choosing to leave the Mennonite faith.
1. Anabaptist Beliefs
Anabaptism is a religious movement that started during the Protestant Reformation. It's separate from Protestant and Catholic belief systems because Anabaptists believe that baptism is a choice. As a result, children born into Anabaptist faiths are not baptized, and they're encouraged to learn about the faith before choosing to be baptized when they become adults around the age of 18.
Adult baptism is the core belief that makes Anabaptists unique when compared against Catholics and Protestants.
The Anabaptist Belief of Adult Baptism
The name "Anabaptist" roughly means "baptized again," emphasizing this key difference that drove the first Anabaptists away from mainline Christianity.
This belief in choosing to be baptized remains central to every Anabaptist's religious structure. It's the reason that Anabaptists were persecuted during the Protestant Reformation, and it's the primary differentiator for Anabaptists today.
The Anabaptist Belief in the New Testament
Generally speaking, Anabaptists are not "fire and brimstone" Christians (though there may be some individuals who are).
Instead, they believe in the New Testament. This is because of Matthew 5:17, in which Jesus states he came to fulfill the old law (the Old Testament), including laying out new lessons and strictures for the apostles to follow.
The Anabaptist Belief in Separation from the World
Anabaptists have a saying — they strive to be "in the world, but not of the world."
This has a wide variety of applications, depending on who's saying it and the denomination to which they belong.
For example, the Amish feel that being "in the world" means living as a part of mainstream society, but they reject modern conveniences so that they don't become "of the world."
This is the most extreme interpretation of this ideology. Mennonites take it to a less extreme, though they may also strive to live more "simply," depending on their denomination as well.
For Bruderhof, this concept includes living as a commune, which is a completely different interpretation.
This way of thinking is also why you find few Mennonites in positions of governmental leadership. If your goal is to live separately from the world, you can't also lead that world.
The Anabaptist Belief in Discipleship
Discipleship is another core tenet of Anabaptism, reflecting the desire to live in a way like Jesus.
This doesn't mean literally living like Jesus — it's an ideological statement that emphasizes non-violence, forgiveness, and elements of stoicism.
Most notably, it requires Anabaptists to love their enemies, as Jesus famously stated, and to pray for their betterment and understanding instead of hating them.
The Anabaptist Belief in Counterculture
Because Anabaptists believe in so many different ideas that are typically not endorsed by mainstream society, Anabaptists consider themselves a counterculture (though not necessarily a counterculture movement).
This is mainly because of their emphasis on non-violence in the face of the Western Civilization endorsement of military volunteerism, but it also has an element of pride to it.
After all, how could you believe you're part of a counterculture if you didn't think you were living better than the culture at large?
The Anabaptist Belief in Servanthood
Anabaptists embrace the idea that they're here to help others. It's in their statements of belief in their churches as missionary churches, it exists in their rhetoric to encourage new converts, and more.
"Servanthood" does not necessarily mean serving in an occupational status. Instead, it encourages followers to reflect on what they've done to help someone individually or a group as a community.
It's just one way that the local community can ensure it continues to grow and nurture its followers.
The Anabaptist Belief in Non-Violence
Non-violence has not always been the Anabaptist way.
Back when they were persecuted, many Anabaptists fought back against their oppressors and even openly attacked them as enemies of the state.
One famous example of this is Pietr Simons, the brother of Mennonite founder Menno Simons, who besieged a Catholic monastery, killed the inhabitants, and then got killed himself in the retaliation attack.
Menno Simons, sickened by the loss of his only sibling, then rejected his Catholic priesthood, began meeting with the "radical" Anabaptists in Holland, and developed his own group of followers.
His followers called themselves Mennonites and, leading by example that soon spread to all other Anabaptist sects, they never fought — even against their attackers.
Today, hundreds of years later, Anabaptists retain that belief.
2. Anabaptist Origins
The first seeds of Anabaptism emerged around the 15th Century, as far as modern historians can guess.
Similar beliefs systems have also been noted in the Brethren of the Common Life and Waldensians, among other denominations. However, these are also nuanced denominations of Christianity that may overlap with Anabaptist beliefs, but they don't necessarily constitute Anabaptist denominations.
In addition, Anabaptists have a long and storied history of persecution at the hands of just about everyone else that lived in Europe, especially Catholics and Protestants.
These enemies were known to kill, torture, slander, and otherwise do what they could to remove Anabaptists as ideological adversaries to mainline Christianity.
Altogether, this hodgepodge of historical events makes it exceptionally difficult for anyone to say when Anabaptism started as an ideology (and who started it).
Generally speaking, there are three theories that point to the origins of Anabaptists, and they're mutually exclusive from one another.
Monogenesis is the theory that Anabaptism originated from the Swiss Brethren movement in Zurich. According to this theory, the origin date of Anabaptism is exactly January 21, 1525.
January 21, 1525 is a crucial date in the history of Anabaptists because it's when Conrad Grebel, co-founder of the Swiss Brethren, baptized George Blaurock, a convert, as an adult.
While conversion among Christian denominations was rare at this time, it wasn't unique. However, it was unique that a Christian convert would be baptized when they were already baptized as a child.
This "re-baptism" sparked the Anabaptist movement, and the event is widely accepted to be the first practice of the cornerstone belief that makes Anabaptists different from other Christians.
Polygenesis is the theory that Anabaptist belief systems arose independently of one another around the same time. According to this theory, the origin date of Anabaptism is February 24, 1527.
The difference in date is not the major point of contention between polygenesis and monogenesis. Instead, it's the idea that it's possible — and some would say factual — that Anabaptist belief systems arose in Zurich and Saxony around the same time, but completely independent of one another.
This is important because Zurich and Saxony are 438 miles apart, which would take you more than five days to walk if you never stopped for rest.
Given the transportation methods, unsophisticated navigation, and unreliable roads of the time, this makes it unlikely that someone would have travelled from Zurich to Saxony with the news about Anabaptism after it was first recorded in Zurich.
Instead, it's much more likely that there were people who had known one another around each city. Then, they parted ways with one another. At some point, they created a similar belief system that eventually birthed the belief structure of modern Anabaptists.
Apostolic succession is the theory that Anabaptists arose from Christian leaders "passing the torch" to one another, tracing lineage all the way back to the original Apostles of Christ.
Typically, this succession is claimed and applied to the lineage of Catholic bishops as the elders leave office to make room for newcomers to enter office.
However, it can sometimes apply to non-Catholic denominations. There are Baptist successionists who believe the same about the continuation of the Baptist Church.
Compared to monogenesis and polygenesis, apostolic succession is not a widely accepted theory for the origination of the Anabaptist denomination.
Still, it exists, and because we have no exact documents stating to the contrary, it may well be true.
3. Anabaptist Denominations
Anabaptist denominations are religious groups that embrace the central tenets of Anabaptism — baptism as a choice — with slight variances in other beliefs.
The list below is not comprehensive because Anabaptist denominations tend to be small, rural, and insular. The best and most extreme example of this is the Amish.
With that in mind, here's a list of some of the larger and better-known Anabaptist denominations:
- Old Order Mennonites
- Swiss Brethren
- Quakers (also called "Friends")
Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but it's enough to get a grasp of who fits into Anabaptist ideology.
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