A colleague recently asked me to write “an historical definition” (450-500 words) of Anabaptism for a forthcoming newsletter for the Anabaptist Network in South Africa.
I like history a lot, though I think I am too inclined to want to do theological analysis of historical events to truly measure up to the standards of modern historiography. That disclaimer aside, my definition is below.
In order to find a useful definition of “Anabaptist”, let us begin with the name itself. The word “Anabaptist” consists of two parts, “ana” and “baptist”. The first part, “ana” is the Greek prefix meaning “re”. The second part, “baptist”, refers, obviously, to the Christian practice of baptism by which one becomes a member of Christ and his Church. In the sixteenth-century, European context in which it was first coined, the title “Anabaptist” denoted a person who had been “re-baptized”. The title was pejorative; it was the Anabaptists' opponents way of speaking about those whom they said had violated the “one baptism” mandate of the New Testament (Eph 4:5). The name stuck, and today the spiritual descendants of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists gladly embrace it. Yet, originally, the Anabaptists did not believe themselves guilty of re-baptism; they simply denied that their “first” baptism—the sprinkling of water upon a newborn baby's head—was truly Christian.
The first known Anabaptist baptisms took place on 21 January 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, when a group led by Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Felix Manz baptized one another in Manz's home. Their baptism, which has come to be known as “believers' baptism”, stood in contrast to “infant baptism”, the standard practice of the European society known as Christendom, the alliance of power between the church and the state. The meaning, again, lies in the name; the baptism of “believers” signifies those who have put their faith in Christ, not “infants” who, against their wills, have been sprinkled with water. Anabaptist baptism is the baptism of discipleship, of “counting the cost” before one sets off on one's journey after Jesus (Lk 14:27-28). Thus, believers' baptism—along with the type of community (church) it forms—is also often described as “voluntary” and “free”. Consistent with the freedom of their baptism, Anabaptists, in spite of a few notable exceptions, rejected coercion and violence, including participation in military service—for which they were persecuted and martyred.
Just as the early church after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 8:1ff.), so persecution “scattered” the Anabaptists; in addition to remaining in their birthplaces of central and western Europe, Anabaptists fled in waves to Russia and the Americas. Later, through the great missionary movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Anabaptism took root in Africa, India, and East Asia. Today, the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptists are on every inhabited continent, with the greatest concentration of believers in Africa. As of 2006, according to the findings of Mennonite World Conference, “a community of Anabaptist-related churches”, there were nearly 1.5 million Mennonites and Brethren in Christ worldwide in 75 countries and over 200 “organized bodies”. Yet wherever people commit themselves to Jesus in a community of “justice, joy, and peace”, there the Anabaptist vision is alive (Rom 14:17).
In drafting this definition, a connection I began to make but had never quite seen before was the “freedom” inherent to “believers’ baptism” with the “nonviolence” characteristic of “believers’ churches”. In other words, though we often reason for nonviolence in terms of Jesus’ example from the gospels (which I still take to be the bedrock), Anabaptist Christians might also make a “theological” case from the wisdom or logic inherent to our (“free”, not “coerced”) baptism.