Theological Perspective of Anabaptists Mennonites and Amish Essay

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Anabaptists / Mennonites / Amish


Anabaptists / Mennonites / Amish a theological perspective.

In this essay, the author explores the Anabaptists / Mennonites / Amish with a theological perspective. The author has discussed background and characteristics of all three Christian movements.


The term "Anabaptist" or Wiedertaufer," which means "rebaptizer," was first given to the Swiss Brethren by Ulrich Zwingli. [footnoteRef:2] Above the past four hundred years, the term "Anabaptism" has obsessed several connotations. At first it was utilized as a term of ridicule by Reformers and Catholic authorities throughout the Protestant Reformation, Anabaptism initially supposed "re-baptizer" (Huxman & Biesecker-Mast, 2004, p. 540). [2: William R. Estep, "The Reformation: Anabapist Style, "Criswell Theological Review 6 (Spring 1993): 199.]

"In the early seventeenth century, Menno Simmons's interpretation of Anabaptist convictions, which stressed separation from the world and non-resistance, gained a popular following." (Huxman & Biesecker-Mast, 2004, p. 540).Scholars such as Albrecht Ritscl and Ludwig Keller regarded Anabaptist origin as separate from the protestant Reformation. During the reformation in the sixteen century, the Anabaptists were the ones who attempted to return the Church to the doctrines and practices set forth in the New Testament. In their reform efforts, they devoted particular attention to making true disciples of Jesus Christ in order to accomplish the Great Commission.

The hallmark of the Anabaptists is their commitment to the Bible and the cause of Christ regardless of the consequences. With this unwavering devotion to Jesus Christ, they sought to evangelize their generation. Ultimately the term was used in a derisive manner by both Protestant and Catholic opponents in the designation of almost anyone who was not member of the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinistic Reformed Churches. Especially after the Munster incident, the opponents applied the term "Anabaptist" to heretics, fanatics, and revolutionaries.[footnoteRef:3] This distorted definition of "Anabaptist" was applied consistently by historians for four centuries.[footnoteRef:4] Indeed, until recently, the Anabaptists have been portrayed as the extremists of the Reformation or exhibited as fanatics in the manner of the Munster revolutionaries. [footnoteRef:5] [3: J.Denny Weaver, Becoming Anabaptist: The Origin and Significance of Sixteen-Century Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA:Herald Press, 1987), 19. The Anabaptists, among the Swiss and German Anabaptists, preferred the name "brothers."] [4: Such misrepresentation of the Anabaptists is caused by previous historians who referred primarily to the documents written by the opponents of the Anabaptists such as Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Luther, and Philip Melanchthon. See William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story, 3 ded (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 1-2.] [5: Donald F. Durnbaugh, "New Understandings of Anabaptism and Pietism," Brethren Life and Thought 35 (Fall 1990): 250.]

The evangelism of the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century was the consequence of the return of the church to New Testament doctrine. This theological shift was not original with this group. Martin Luther and other reformers already had served relationships with the Roman Catholic Church because of fundamental differences over various Christian doctrines. Luther stressed three basic Reformation principles: (1) authority of the Bible, (2) justification by faith alone, and (3) priesthood of all believers.

The Anabaptist views of the fundamental Christian doctrines' such as the Trinitarian concept of the Godhead and the divine-human character of the person of Christ did not differ greatly from the reformers' positions.[footnoteRef:6] The Anabaptists, however, differed from the magisterial reformers in the implementation of certain Reformation doctrines within the Church. These differences are discerned especially in the areas of separation of church and state, conversion, baptism, and priesthood of the believer. [6: Gordon D. Kaufman, "Some Theological Emphases of the Early Swiss Anabaptists," Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (April 1951): 75-6]

For example, Luther asserted the authority of the Bible, but he did not refute the state's intervention in the church's affairs. Luther also differed from the Anabaptists on the matter of armed conflict. For Luther, participation in military matter was permissible; however, the Anabaptists were primarily pessimists. Luther proclaimed the doctrine of justification by faith alone, but he did not abolish the mystical qualities of infant baptism and the Eucharist. The Anabaptists viewed the ordinances as physical symbols of spiritual realities. Luther emphasized the priesthood of all believers, but he could not break the barrier that existed between the clergy and the laity. The Anabaptists focused upon lay involvement.

The Anabaptists were successful in the implementation of these reformation doctrines within the church. Their beliefs and practices were based upon the authority of the Bible. Their emphases upon the symbolic nature of the ordinances were cornerstones for their theological superstructures. The hallmark of the Anabaptists was their conviction about believer's baptism. In addition, the implementation of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer went beyond the parameters of the magisterial reformers. At the heart of Anabaptist ecclesiology was lay participation. Many of the Anabaptist laity served as lay preachers. The restoration of these New Testament characteristics of the Church, especially in the area of the "new birth," allowed the Anabaptists to move from the institutionalized, traditional, spiritually lifeless churches to the dynamic Anabaptist communities of believers.

Anabaptist View of Salvation

The Anabaptists stressed that salvation is through justification by faith. Nevertheless, the soteriology of the Anabaptist was distinct from that of the mainstream reformers. [footnoteRef:7] One of the fundamental differences between the Anabaptists' and reformers' views of salvation is in the matter of faith. Anabaptism understands faith as "a dynamic response to God's approach; this response opened the life to the transforming grace of God, which resulted in obedience and discipleship: faith and obedience are as inseparable as regeneration and discipleship." [footnoteRef:8] [7: Synder, Anabaptist History and Theology, 104] [8: Walter Klaassen, "Anabaptism and the Reformation," Canadian Journal of Theology 8 (January 1962): 37]

In summary, the evangelism of the Anabaptists is the by-product of their faith in their New Testament doctrines. The Anabaptists are the reformers, more than any others, who actually carried out the Reformation principles of the authority of the Bible, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers. They based their beliefs and practices on the Bible which produced an evangelistic mentality among the adherents. One of their major contributions to evangelism is the return to the doctrine of the "new birth" in salvation. This doctrine is the very essence of New Testament evangelism. They believe in the doctrine of believer's baptism, and symbolic interpretations of baptism and the Lord's Supper.

The Anabaptist view of the Church as a community of believers, rather than an institution, revitalized the church and activated the potential power of lay people. Their emphases upon spiritual vitality, theological doctrines, and church practices forms the cornerstones upon which certain subsequent generations of evangelicals have build their strategies for evangelism.


Indeed, until the 1930s, the term Anabaptist was used as a vague referent which could include a number of diverse sixteenth-century groups, from violent revolutionaries (Munster rebels), to apocalyptic spiritualists who placed their faith in charismatic prophets (David Juries and Melchior Hoffman) and non-resistant re-baptizers (Swiss/South German Anabaptists in Zurich) and "not until the 1980s did Swiss congregations descended directly from sixteenth-century Swiss Brethren begin to call themselves Mennonites" (Weaver, 1987, p. 117). Mennonite identity has also experienced variations, alternately known as "a movement, a sect, and a church" (Huxman & Biesecker-Mast, 2004, p. 540).

Brief History of the Mennonites

The Mennonites originated as a group of Anabaptist dissidents from the Catholic Church in Holland during the 1500s. One of the founders of the Mennonites, Menno Simon was born in Holland in 1496.[footnoteRef:9] Simon was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1524, but later "renounced popery," around 1525 as stated in his autobiography.[footnoteRef:10] As an unofficial leader of the people, Simon was aware of the concurrent Anabaptist movements occurring in Switzerland with Ulrich Zwingli and in Germany, with Martin Luther. Therefore, after great soul searching and persuasion he was baptized by Obbe Philips in 1536 and became the reluctant, but recognized, leader of the group. [9 S.F. Coffman, ed., "Historical Sketch of the Mennonite Church," Mennonite Confession of Faith, (Warsaw, IN: Bartel Printing Company, 1976): 9.] [10: Menno Simon, The Complete Works of Menno Simon, Translated from the Original Dutch (Lagrange: Pathway Publishers, 1983): 3.]

Simon's group of followers came to be called Mennonites, a name that was also passed on to these believers in Switzerland, France, and Germany.[footnoteRef:11] A common set of beliefs was held by the Mennonites in all of these countries although they had not all met Simon. He remained a strong leader under persecution until he died. [11: Coffman, ed., "Historical Sketch of the Mennonite Church," 10.]

The Mennonites believe in baptism upon confession of faith by an individual who is of the age of accountability. Conversely, the Catholic Church practices infant baptism. Therefore, when the first adults asked to be baptized by Simon, they were really undergoing the process for the second time. Thus the name re-baptizers or "Anabaptists" was born.[footnoteRef:12] The Mennonites are a peaceful group, opposed to war and violence to such an extent that they will not even…

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