So What’s an Anabaptist?

So What’s an Anabaptist? April 29, 2013

I am often asked “What is an Anabaptist?” and “Who are the Anabaptists?” If one listened to everyone who claimed an anabaptist connection, it would be easy to be confused. For many today a progressive politics is Anabaptist; for others it means being either Yoderian (John Howard Yoder) or Hauerwasian (Stanley Hauerwas). Fair enough, but neither of them is the full representation of Anabaptism.

So today I want to sketch the view of the one description of Anabaptism that shaped the 20th Century the most. I refer to Harold S. Bender‘s classic essay called The Anabaptist Vision. No, it is not true that all Anabaptists agree with Bender, and No, some today (like Thomas Finger, in his big study A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, or J. Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist) want to frame things in a different way, but it can be said that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.

There are three major dimensions of the Reformation: Luther and the Lutherans in Germany, Calvin and the Reformed in Switzerland, and Zwingli-generated and then finished later by others Anabaptism. Anabaptism spread through Switzerland, South Germany, Moravia and then into the Netherlands. The early Anabaptist theologians and statements of faith were uniformly Protestant in theology (justification, salvation by faith) yet were not simply Lutheran or Reformed. Their emphasis on adult baptism, upon profession of faith, as part of commitment to be a disciple, and to form into a fellowship of discipleship distinguished the Anabaptists from both the Lutherans and the Reformed, not to mention the Catholics.

Anabaptism is largely responsible for the nonconformist impulse of the church — to be sure, it has some connections to those before it, like the Waldensians of Italy, but the Anabaptists were radical in their nonconformity to the State and to State-sponsored churches — that is, the Catholic Church, Lutherans and the Reformed. All non-State churches in the USA, and that’s most, owe some debt to the Anabaptists.

They were a courageous lot — thousands were put to death. They paid their life to be nonconformists, and there’s a positive way to put this: they died in order to be faithful to their commitment to follow the Bible, the New Testament and Jesus Christ.

For Bender, the Anabaptists are the full implementation of the Reformation. Neither Luther nor Calvin went far enough. Bender’s focus is Luther, not Calvin, and he cites evidence that Luther late in his life realized his “mass church,” which was basically everyone born into the community/State would be baptized and be Lutheran, was ineffective in transforming the life of the person.  The early Anabaptists, like Conrad Grebel, observed the lack of discipleship among the Lutherans of the Reformation. So the Anabaptists carried through the Lutheran reforms and broke with 1500 years of the church.

Bender is famous for three features of the Anabaptist Vision:

1. The essence of Christianity, or the Christian life, is discipleship — a committed following of Christ in all areas of life. The word on the street in the 16th Century, and this word repeated often enough by bitter enemies of the Anabaptists, was that they were consistent and devout Christians. If Luther’s word was “faith,” the word for the Anabaptists was “follow.” The inner conversion was to lead to external transformation.

2. A new conception of the church as a brotherhood of fellowship. The ruling image of a church among the Catholics and Reformers was more national and institutional and sacramental, while the ruling image for the Anabaptists was fellowship or family. Joining was voluntary; the requirement was conversion; the commitment was to holy living and fellowship with one another. Thus, the Anabaptist separated from the “world” to form a society of the faithful. This view of the church led to economic availability and liability for one another.

3. A new ethic of love and peaceful nonresistance. Apart from rare exceptions like Balthasar Hubmaier and the nutcases around Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptists lived a life shaped by love and nonviolence. They refused to coerce anyone.

Thus, for Bender, the focus was on discipleship not sacraments or the inner enjoyment of justification. The church was not an institution or a place for Word-proclamation in emphasis but instead a brotherhood of love. In addition, against Catholics and Calvinists who believed in social reform, like the Lutherans the Anabaptists were less optimistic about social transformation. But, unlike the Lutherans who split life into the secular and sacred, the Anabaptists wanted a radical commitment that meant the creation of an alternative Christian society.

Revised re-posting.


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  • Mark Day

    This is very helpful Scot, thank you. Is there anywhere that you see this ‘Anabaptist Vision’ being lived out in a significant way?

  • pete dayton

    It seems like all 3 of these emphases have been implemented and are an integral part of today’s Evangelical movement

  • theologien

    Scot, what do you think of James William McClendon’s discussion of Anabaptism in vol. 1 of his systematic theology (ethics)? If that is a good working definition of anabaptism, then I would call myself an Anabaptist.

  • It might be good to note that although both J Denny Weaver and Tom Finger affirm Bender’s summary Weaver construes it towards a more sectarian embodiment while Finger takes it in a more ecumenical direction. So Bender’s essentia still allow room for a variety of interpretations.

    Furthermore, Bender himself was establishing his own norm within a broader Anabaptist stream that expressed more diversity than Bender was comfortable with.

  • scotmcknight

    theologien, I have not read McClendon. I have read summaries of him in Finger’s book.

    Ric, you are right on both accounts. Yet, Bender’s three-fold vision remains important to the Anabaptist orientation. Many today, of course, have taken it all into a more progressive social activist stance, but progressivism is not appreciated by many in Anabaptist circles.

  • Thanks posting or reposting.
    Interesting to see distinctions even from Yoder and Haueraus, and also social reform approach.

    Recently wrote a paper on the differences in reading and interpreting the Bible bw Calvin n Menno.

  • Scot, I agree about Bender’s vision remaining important preciscely becaue both progressive and conservative Anabaptists are still able to affirm it. However, what J Denny Weaver is reacting to is the increasing influence of evangelicalism in Anabaptist congregations which is (acc. to Weaver) not embracing Bender’s affirmations (contra pete dayton’s note above) but diluting and/or displacing it. [I also want to promote Tom Finger’s book as an invaluable survey/critique of the Anabaptist theological landscape. I wish his book had received more attention.]

  • Michael

    That is what they were, but who are they? Seems like a number of things have changed and their “Ana” issues are mostly mute.

    I thought the inner conversion leads to inner transformation not external transformation. But for the “Ana” it seems as though the external is the elevation of sanctification.

  • Eluros Aabye

    Thanks for the helpful and informative post, Scot!

    It’s only tangentally related, and is by no means a criticism, but you use a phrase I haven’t heard before and it piqued my interest. I was thinking about this clause:

    “…but it can be said that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.”

    I’m really interested in what “it can be said” is doing in the sentence. Seems a bit axiomatic, doesn’t it? “It can be said that P”, where P is something said, is always true. Obviously, we’re not meant to be taken literally.

    It would change the sentence if we swapped it with the following:

    “…but Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.”
    (Sounds like a stronger claim than the original.)

    “…but, in my opinion, Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.”
    (Sounds like a weaker, more subjective claim than the original.)

    “…but, some have said that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.”
    (Keeps the lingo of “said”, but sounds a bit ambiguous)

    So, I’m not able to come up with a substitute for the original, which seems strange. “It can be said that P” sounds redundant with “P”, but it actually seems to connote something different, in terms of tone/etc. How odd!

    There’s no moral to this story or insight intended in this post. Just thought you and others might enjoy the train of thought that it sent me down.

  • In the early days, Catholics were known to punish them by tying them up and “re-baptizing” them in a body of water (yes, that’s right they drowned them), since the the Anas rejected infant baptism as a sacrament.

    Their peace values persist and survived the bloody century (20th) and I sense that this value will come to the fore in a new way in the Millennial generation and cross Christian tradition boundaries.

  • Rick

    “it has some connections to those before it, like the Waldensians of Italy”

    Is this referring to a direct connection (birthing, succession, etc…), or an indirect (influence of writings) connection?

  • I think Packer’s critique of Anabaptism is very useful to frame the thing. I read it in the Puritan Papers (Internal word revealed in the believer’s conscience -> evaluates external written word = subjective and selective enlightenment : this is what permits anabaptists to be dogmatic about not consensual stuff among christians like pacifism).
    I would add that for me ‘discipleship’ without ‘inner enjoyment of justification’ is a poetic twist that gets our kicks in this contemporary age. I think that what drove anabaptists do be more agressive on discipleship was not caring about justification, but trying to take more result out of that. Sorry my english.
    Thanks for the post!

  • * I think that what drove anabaptists do be more agressive on discipleship was not not caring about justification, but trying to take more result out of that. Sorry my english.

  • John Mark

    Lisa #10: I am not aware that Catholics drowned Anabaptist, but Zwingli did.

  • John Mark

    Anabaptists plural, sorry

  • Great summary!

    When I work with Bender, I often try to be clear that the Anabaptist Vision is a kind of Weberian Ideal Type. Within that broad category of Vision is multiple visions. I say that in part because I come from an Anabaptist tradition (The Church of the Brethren) that shares these markers but puts them together in a distinct culture.

    I’d also recommend a more thorough treatment of these traditions under the rubric of Believers’ Church- which identifies some of the connections between evangelicalism, Anabaptism, and even Quakerism- Donald Durnbaugh, Believers’ Church (now as a reprint with Wipf and Stock).

    Scot, I think you are right to name the impact of progressivism within the historic Anabaptist denominations. I might venture to say that it is not just progressivism, but the whole spectrum of modern liberalism (progressive to conservative). I think much of the historic traditions have yet to embody the post-liberal critique of the likes of Hauerwas.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • ELuros #9

    “… it can be said…” is another way of saying “… there are good reasons to conclude that …” of “the preponderance of the evidence points to …” The author/speaker is usually communicating that he/she has formed opinion on the the matter, recognizing that others may not be as fully persuaded. The statement “It can be said that 2 plus 2 equals 4.” is an understatement. The statement is true regardless of the person’s perspective. To say, “It can be said that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player who ever lived” depends on a number of subjective criteria about which reasonable people might disagree.

  • Eluros Aabye

    Michael (#17),

    Interesting… so, consider the following sentences:

    “It can be said that Michael Jordan was the best basketball player who ever lived.”
    “It can be said that Michael Jordan was the worst basketball player who ever lived.”

    Both of these are obviously true in a strictly literal, denotative sense. In terms of what’s being communicated, though, we’d say that the former is true and the latter is false? Is it essentially boiling down to a “reasonable person might hold” sort of standard? Consider:

    “…but it can be said that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.”
    “…but a reasonable person might hold that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 20th Century.”


    “…but it cannot be said that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 12th Century.”
    “…but a reasonable person might not hold that Bender’s sketch is the most influential view of Anabaptism of the 12th Century.”

    Is that the best way to look at the expression? By George, I think I’ve got it!

  • Eluros #18

    I think you are getting the idea. “It can be said that …” is short for “It can be said by a reasonable person that …” A “a reasonable person” is assumed in the shorter phrase.

    If I say “It can be said that …”, I’m usually saying, “Here is my conclusion. I’m open to discussion but you are going to have to persuade me otherwise.”

  • Eluros Aabye

    Michael #19,

    Excellent; thanks! Makes a lot of sense. Scot’s original sentence seems much more clear, now.

  • Tyler Tully

    A couple of points worth mentioning:

    1. Anabaptists were violently persecuted by BOTH Catholics and Protestants, (Reformed, and Lutheran). They were put to death by both sects.

    2. Anabaptist discipleship is non-violent, and by its very nature, radical. We see this as the natural living faith encounter with the Holy Spirit. As disciples of Jesus, we are being conformed to His image, and therefore, we are non-violent yet we are also justice seeking.

    3. As Scott said, progressivism isn’t necessarily endorsed by all Anabaptist circles–but remember–each congregation is its own body, and there are certainly many things that most Anabaptists all agree upon. The progressive conversation seems, to my knowledge, to have been framed around “how do we become more and more like Jesus” than simply about progress.

  • Tyler Tully

    Also, to tie Zwingli to the genesis of the Anabaptist is very murky. Zwingli carried out the mandates of putting to death anyone who re-baptized adults. Also, he came head to head with many Anabaptist leaders before they broke off and further developed Anabaptist theology and practice. To say that Anabaptists are one of the three major branches of Reformed Protestantism is misleading. To put the Anabpatists under the branch of Zwingli is equally worrisome.

  • Very good summary and I applaud the reference to Bender. There are two pretty distinct lines of modern Anabaptism. For many people Anabaptism is a term that primarily references “progressive” Christianity, not merely non-resistance but other more leftward causes that have been folded into the umbrella of “Anabaptism”. Where I live the Anabaptist line is far more conservative with a sizeable population of Amish and very conservative Mennonites, Beachy Amish, zealous former Amish and others marked by conservative dress, headcoverings, conservative theology and simplicity in the distinctive way they live. The Mennonite gathering we attend is considered fairly liberal by local Anabpatist standards even though virtually every woman in attendance has a headcovering and wear dresses or long skirts.

    In many ways the two different lines of Anabaptism are about as far apart as you can imagine making it very difficult to define modern Anabaptist thought. The things that marked the early Anabaptists have been somewhat lost in the mists of time and the centuries of persecution but those very lessons are going to be critical to the church in the days to come as we emerge from the suffocating cocoon of Christendom and into a world that is gradually more hostile to Christianity.

  • Julana

    Thank you for this. I grew up in a small Mennonite church in a small Ohio farming community. We sometimes lived the results of Bender’s thinking better than we articulated it.

  • Many of the early Anabaptists were also charismatics, and not only the crazy Munsterian ones. In 1993 Stephen Dintaman pointed out that without the emphasis on the empowering Spirit, Anabaptism degenerates into legalism, a danger Bender recognized.

  • Thanks for repostig this Scot although I must admit I prefer Stuart Murray’s categories to these…

  • scotmcknight

    Len and Kurt,

    Method-wise, we need to comprehend the earliest generations of the Anabaptists, like Grebel and Hubmaier and Pilgram Marpeck through Menno. That sketch establishes some fundamental orientations — non-Catholic, somewhat Protestant but more radical, more or less Prot when it comes to soteriology (justification by faith), very strong on believers baptism, holiness and loving fellowship, lay ministry orientation (but not entirely), and a eucharist service for believers only that also embodied a strong local, discipleship-shaped fellowship and accountability.

    History led to this orientation being inherent to the Anabaptist ways for four solid centuries — breaks, divisions, many of them minor but important to groups — and then a rise in commitment to compassion that was accompanied and propped up by that same early theology though with some new configurations. Many of them were more or less evangelical but not part of the “established evangelicals.”

    The mid 20th Century began to show shifts toward a more progressive social stance (remember many in the Anabaptist tradition were not social activists even if they were very strong on compassion) and at the same time less concern with the historic Anabaptist theology. So I’m not so sure Denny Weaver — I’ve not seen him say this — thinks modern Anabaptists are too evangelical. Well, in fact, I’d say the same of Menno and Hubmaier and the like. They were very into personal conversion narrative and into justification by faith soteriological ideas. Some in the Anabaptist tradition got more into social activism and some were not too happy.

    Take, for example, the Evangelical Mennonites who are now the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches (FEC-ers for short!). They are classically Anabaptist, more mainstream Americans but are not progressives. So they pulled out of the official Mennonite association.

    So Stuart Murray’s book fits with the more progressive wing but I think minimizes the more Prot/evangelical heritage. Finger’s book nuances the whole story quite effectively, though his eye is on ecumenical cooperation more than he perhaps needs to be.

    Correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Mijk V


    Please don’t take these questions as badgering, but I see a serious problem with the discussion thus far—especially since you used the phrase “what’s an Anabaptist” over “what’s Anabaptism?”

    Are you suggesting that one has to merely approve of Bender’s ideals to be an Anabaptist?

    Or, does one have to make a serious attempt at living them out to be an Anabaptist?

    If so, what degree of success in living out these ideals is required for one to become an Anabaptist?

    Can an individual be an Anabaptist irrespective of community?

    Maybe I’m out to lunch, but I feel that this discussion doesn’t actually mean much unless we answer some of these questions or ones like them.

    Mike V.

  • I found your blog very much like what I found as I read The Anabaptist Story. When I cam across the anabaptists in a blog by David Black, I was intrigued and got a couple of books. They were basically told the same story that you summarized so well. I always appreciate the interesting and often astute insight of many of your readers. I greatly enjoyed the whole blog.

  • Regarding J Denny Weaver’s atttitude on Anabaptism and Evangelicalism Tom Finger notes in his Contemporary Anabaptist Theology (page 63) that Weaver “Unlike Yoder, Bender, and Wenger, . . . finds evangelicalism largely a foe.”

    Tom Finger could of course be wrong about Weaver but given Tom’s strong evangelical convictions I would trust his judgement on that. It certainly concurs with my own reading and (limited) interactions with Weaver.

  • Tyler questions tying Zwingli to the genesis of Anabaptism. While it’s certainly true that he parted company with them and eventually fiercely persecuted them, the earliest pioneers of the movement were among his disciples–Conrad Grebel, Feliz Manz, Blaurock, etc. They were inspired by his studies in the NT (emphasizing the Greek manuscripts), but were impatient with his unwillingness to move ahead faster with the reformation of the church. Specifically, their studies led them to embrace believers’ baptism–a step Zwingli was unwilling to take. If you can find a copy of William Estep’s The Anabaptist Story, he does a good job of exploring Zwingli’s relationship with the Swiss Brethren and the causes of the eventual rupture between them.

  • Tyler Tully

    Thanks Gary. I appreciate your insights. Tying Grebel, Manz, and Blaurock (etc) to Zwingli (as the founder of one of the “three major dimensions” of Protestantism during the Reformation) is kind of like saying that Hus, Waldo, and von Staupitz founded another major wing of Protestantism that Luther finally carried out. I know it may be helpful in teaching to try and categorize three major players, but there seems to be a distinct difference between Calvin (founder of the Calvin ‘school’ of Reformed theology), Luther (founder of the Lutheran Church and flavor of Reformed theology), and Zwingli–who cannot be directly tied to any school or founding of a church. Even though its true that many Anabaptists who would later become leaders were inspired by him, or even learned under him, I don’t think its helpful to assert that Zwingili founded the “branch” of Reformed Protestantism that would eventually become Anabaptist. Like you said, he violently persecuted the supposed branch he was responsible for. Once again, it seems history shows us that the Anabaptists weren’t Catholic or Protestant, but developed under another third way.

  • I think the confusion may stem from trying to draw a linear path between the various streams. Anabaptism sort of erupted more than evolved.

  • The confusion on Zwingli’s role has to do with whether one’s view of Anabaptist development is monogenetic or polygenetic. In the monpgenetic view (the older view represented by Bender and Estep which emphasizes a single point of origin) the Swiss Brethen dominate and therefore Zwingli becomes a central figure. In the polygenetic view Anabaptism originated simultaneously in multiple locations. Zwingli has a less prominent role in this view.

    Some of the analysis of the relationship of Anabaptism to Evangelicalism is related to one’s view of Anabaptist history. Evangelicals tend to be partial to the monogenesis view because it tells the story in a way that provides more points of connection with Evangelical sympathies. [The classic essay on polygenesis is James M Stayer; Werner O Packull; and Klaus Deppermann, “From Monogenesis to Polygenesis: the historical discussion of Anabaptist origins”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 49 (2) April 1975.]

  • Mark E. Smith

    I don’t consider myself an Anabaptist, but I do find myself resonating with the three features.

  • mountainguy

    One question: what is the meaning of “conservative” in the anabaptist world? Because it seems to me, it has more to do with being ethnic anabaptist who still hold to their traditions than with conservatism as a position.

    BTW, I am a colombian living in Argentina. In southamerica there are a lot of ethnic mennonites in Bolivia and mainly in Paraguay, but just a few in Argenitna, and none in Colombia. What I have noted in Argentina is that the word conservative is related to churches that are (more) conservative in their theology (some of them with a distinctive neopentecostal flavor).

  • mountainguy

    PS: Mr Mcknight, would you mind if I translated this article to spanish to be put into the next bulletin of AMLAC (Agencia Menonita Latinoamericana de Comunicaciones)?

    Best regards

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, you have my permission.

  • Others have pointed out a rather infelicitous connection made between Zwingli and Anabaptism in your essay. What’s important about Bender is that he was trying to define a “normative Anabaptism” that was delineated from some of the movement’s excesses and he also wanted to use that model of normative Anabaptism to reinvigorate the Mennonite Church and especially to protect it from Protestant Fundamentalism. The “Anabaptist Vision” was more a theological program than a reading of historical evidence, but you’re right to emphasize its importance for defining Anabaptism for the rest of the twentieth century.

    And there’s this:

    John Oyer who taught History at Goshen College and was Bender’s successor as editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review, used to tell the story that Bender said if one wanted to read a modern work that embodied the Anabaptist spirit, one could do no better than Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

  • AndrewH

    FYI, the Anabaptist Vision is available to read online.

  • Joyce

    I found this very interesting, my great grandmother’s family goes back to Jacob Gottshall.

  • VMax

    Unfortunately, a state using a religious group(s) and the latter getting inclined to rely on the state and even accept money from it has been so predominant in Christian history.
    Jesus, being a revolutionary himself, was trying to slam a state-sponsored religion (Judaism of that age) and promote brotherly fellowship of believers. Following the footsteps of Christ, Anabaptist brethren lived through horrors but did not give up.
    I think, there is no difference of opinion among Anabaptists in the matters of faith (radical and evangelical) and the “position” and “status” of the faithful. There are differences in the matters of “practice” and “way of life”. Menno Simmons, a great Anabaptist leader did not teach a communal living as a “practice”, but Jacob Hutter, another great leader did. Being a Hutterian by conviction and considering a communal “way of life” as the best to develop brotherly love, nevertheless, I consider those differences as secondary. We all have our ways of life and our own practices. We just have to ask ourselves if those are helping us to love our brethren. If your answer is “yes” then this is your way.