Antitrinitarianism among the Early Anabaptists, 15171530


    We have now to trace through several chapters the story of how, during the halfcentury after the beginning of the Reformation, Christians who could not accept the orthodox doctrines about the Trinity and the person of Christ tried in various parts of western Europe to proclaim views more or less Unitarian, only sooner or later to be met in each case by excommunication from the Church, banishment from home, imprisonment, or even death itself, until at length countries were found whose laws allowed them freedom of conscience, and thus made it possible for them to worship God after their own manner and to organize churches of their own.

    The first of those to adopt and teach these views were found in what is known as the Anabaptist movement. This movement was one which, though it had some able and educated leaders, found its chief following among the humbler classes of society. It was in fact a loose fusion of two quite different elements: a popular religious movement of devout and earnest souls whose spiritual ancestry went back of the Reformation to circles of pious mystics and humble Christians in the bosom of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, out of which had come such devout classics as the Imitation of Christ; and along with this, a popular social movement among the peasantry, whose sense of the wrongs and oppressions they had long suffered had been stirred up anew by the Reformation, and who looked for a reformed religion to bring them a reformed social order. Both religiously and socially they were the radicals of the Protestant Reformation.

    The Anabaptist movement took its rise in 1525 at Zürich, as the radical wing of the Swiss Reformation which had begun there under the leadership of Zwingli; but it soon got beyond control, and it ran into such extravagances that some of its leaders were put to death, and others with their followers were banished. Yet the movement seemed somehow to answer a strong religious and social demand, and in spite of persecutions, and of an edict of the Diet of Speyer in 1529 that every Anabaptist should be put to death, it soon spread like wildfire over large parts of Western Europe; and in our story we shall meet it in Western Germany, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, Moravia, Poland, Transylvania, and England. These Anabaptists embraced a wide variety of teachings, differing according to their leader or the locality; but the one thing which was common to them all, and which seemed most sharply to distinguish them from other Protestants, was their objection to infant baptism, and their insistence that upon reaching adult Christian life persons who had been baptized in infancy should be baptized again. Hence the name given them by their opponents, Anabaptists (i.e., rebaptizers) ; although this name was ere long applied, in more or less reproach, to religious radicals of the period, in general, without much regard to their particular beliefs as to baptism.

    Their interest in the question of baptism, however, was only incidental. Their first concern was in the establishment of a pure Church, reformed from the ground up by its strict adherence in every particular to the teachings of Scripture, which they accepted literally and tried faithfully to follow.  Thus they believed that followers of Christ should not resist evil, nor bear arms, nor own private property, nor hold civil office, nor resort to law courts, nor take oaths; and their movement was largely a lay movement. In these respects they might be called the Quakers of their time; and indeed the Quakers of England were not a little influenced by their teaching and example. They also believed in separation of Church and State, and stood firmly for freedom of conscience and against religious persecution. In their view of religious knowledge they were mystics, holding that God makes his truth and will known to the souls of men directly, and they relied much upon the guidance of the Spirit; but though they were in the main people of most exemplary lives, they would sometimes ascribe to the influence of the divine Spirit impulses which seemed to others to have a very human origin, and thus in the name of religion some of them ran into gross immorality.

    Instead, however, of having the backing of the civil power, as the Lutherans did, the Anabaptists were generally opposed by it; unfortunately they had no leader like Luther powerful enough to guide their movement and hold it in control; and they were far too loosely organized to be able to control their own members. The result was that a movement which had in it much that was good was at length wrecked by the excesses of its wilder adherents. At Münster, where it was especially strong, it took a revolutionary form; and such civil disorder ensued and such fanaticism ruled that the whole movement had in 1535 to be suppressed with terrible bloodshed. Now disturbances such as these tended to bring the whole Protestant movement into ill repute, and the leaders of the Reformation reacted in alarm and disgust.  The Anabaptists were therefore more bitterly hated and more harshly persecuted than were the members of any other religious movement during the sixteenth century; and it is said that by 1546 no fewer than 30,000 of them had been put to death in Holland and Friesland. The remnants of them that survived persecution were at length gathered into a more compact body with sober leadership; and of these sprang the Mennonites of Holland, and the Baptists of England and America.

    Our reason for being interested in the Anabaptists in this history is that, though the majority of them remained orthodox on the main doctrines of the Creeds, some of their most distinguished leaders became decidedly liberal, and instead of stopping where Luther stopped, went on to reject doctrines, like that of the Trinity, which were not taught in the Scriptures. Since these were the earliest pioneers of Unitarianism in Europe, it will be worthwhile to glance at the career of a few of them and see what they believed, and what became of them and their doctrine.

    Martin Cellarius (or Borrhäus) deserves to be remembered because he is said to have been the first Protestant openly to proclaim antitrinitarian beliefs. He was born at Stuttgart in 1499, was liberally educated, and became a friend of Melanchthon. While leading the life of a teacher in Germany he early in life became an Anabaptist, and for this he suffered imprisonment in Prussia. He published in 1527 a book, On the Works of God, in which he taught that Jesus was God only in the sense in which we may all be gods — by being filled with God’s spirit. For spreading this and other heretical views, he was obliged in 1536, after his release from prison, to flee to Switzerland; but there he became professor at the University of Basel, and was permitted to live in peace until his death of the plague in 1564.

    The most important of all the antitrinitarian Anabaptists was Hans Denck, who has been called one of the profoundest thinkers of the sixteenth century. Born in Bavaria about 1495, he became famous as an accomplished Hebrew and classical scholar, and was appointed rector of a celebrated school at Nuremberg; but for having become an Anabaptist he was after a year deprived of his office and ordered in 1524 to leave the city before nightfall. From a book which he published later it is clear that he was far from accepting the usual orthodox teaching as to the Trinity, for he gave the doctrine a mystical sort of explanation which altogether changed its established meaning; and he was also unorthodox as to the atonement, and the eternal punishment of the wicked. For some years after his banishment he lived the life of a wandering preacher, persecuted for his faith and driven from city to city, till at last he found a brief refuge at Basel, where he was carried off by the plague in 1527.

    A third Anabaptist Antitrinitarian was Johannes Campanus, who was born near the border between Belgium and Germany. He was a scholar, and for a time he enjoyed the friendship of Luther and Melanchthon; but he became more or less influenced by Anabaptist tendencies, and fell under suspicion on account of his utterances as to the Trinity. After suffering imprisonment and other persecution for attempting to win converts to his views by preaching, he determined to spread them in a book, which be issued about 1531 “in opposition to the whole world since the Apostles,” of which the gentle Melanchthon said that its author deserved to be hanged. In this and another work he strove to expose and correct the corruptions of Christian doctrine, and to restore the pure teaching of primitive Christianity.  He taught that only two persons are divine, the Father and the Son, that the Son is inferior to the Father, and that the Spirit is not a person, but a divine power. For stirring up the peasants he was arrested about 1553, and is said to have been imprisoned at Kleve for some twenty six years.

    Perhaps the most extraordinary career of all was that of David Joris, who was born in Flanders or Holland in 1501. He was brought up the son of a traveling mountebank, and was quite without education. Having become an Anabaptist preacher he said he was a prophet, and showed an extraordinary power of attracting devoted personal followers. While much of a fanatic, he was withal a man of keen mind, and was the author of nearly three hundred works, of which the most important was entitled The Wonderbook. He taught that the doctrine of the Trinity tends only to obscure our knowledge of God, in whose being there is no distinction of persons. For nearly ten years he traveled about Holland and adjoining parts of Germany and gathered many followers, though often obliged to go in disguise in order to avoid the persecutions that continued to follow him and them, in the course of which his mother was put to death, and he himself had numerous hairbreadth escapes. At length he resolved to go beyond the reach of his persecutors, and in some distant land to wait in peace for the second coming of Christ, which he fervently expected to live to witness. After traveling as far as Venice in search of a place, he returned to Switzerland and with a few trusted friends settled in 1544 at Basel, under the assumed name of Jan van Brugge. He was admitted to citizenship, joined the Reformed Church, purchased an estate, and lived in grand style out of the wealth which his followers had entrusted to him, was bountiful to the poor, and was held in great respect for his irreproachable life until 1556 when he died, having all along kept up a secret correspondence with his Anabaptist followers in Holland.

    Then followed one of those droll humors which sometimes enliven the page of religious history. Three years later the real identity of Jan van Brugge was discovered. The pious citizens of Basel were scandalized beyond measure. Little could now be done to mend matters, but that little was done in the most thorough manner. In accordance with an old mediæval custom a formal trial was instituted against the deceased. The theological faculty of the University investigated the case of David Joris and pronounced him guilty of the most blasphemous heresies; whereupon the authorities passed sentence of burning upon the heretic. His grave was opened, and his body was exhibited to the spectators, and was then, along with all his books and his portrait, publicly burnt by the common hangman, after which his family were required to do penance in the cathedral. Thus the serious reproach of having entertained a heretic unawares was at length removed from the consciences of the worthy Basileans.

    It will be necessary to do little more than mention the names of three others who are classed among the Anabaptists, and of whom indeed little is known save their fate. Jakob Kautz, a young preacher of Bockenheim, who denied the doctrine of eternal punishment and zealously defended at Worms the views of Denck, was imprisoned at Strassburg in 1528, and then banished. In 1530 at Basel, Conradin Bassen, who had denied the deity of Christ, was beheaded and his head was set up on a pole. For similar errors Michael Sattler, who had been leader of Anabaptist churches in Switzerland, after having his tongue cut out and pieces of flesh torn from his body, was burned at the stake at Rothenburg on the Neckar, in 1527.

    It should not be inferred that these Anabaptist heretics are to be closely identified with Unitarianism, in the modern sense of that term. For while it is true that they were all more or less unsound as to the Trinity and their views of Christ, yet they were also all more or less full of vagaries with which Unitarians have had little sympathy. Moreover, the two are radically different as to temper of mind. The Anabaptists were in their religious temperament mystics, relying implicitly upon some inner light for religious guidance, and were therefore always in danger of running into fanaticism; whereas Unitarianism has throughout its history been marked by its faith in the calmer guidance of reason, and if sometimes cold, has at all events always remained sane.

    The important point to note about the Anabaptists in connection with this history is that these radicals of the early Reformation, springing from widely separated places in Protestant Europe, bear witness to a widespread dissatisfaction with the Catholic doctrines about God and Christ, and illustrate many different attempts (for no two of them thought alike) to arrive at beliefs more in harmony with Scripture, and more acceptable to reason, than were the doctrines of the creeds. Having to bear, however, the double weight of heresy and fanaticism, they were foredoomed to failure. Unitarian thought had to wait for saner teachers, more sober leaders, and freer laws, before it could become organized and hope to spread. If this tendency of thought was thus crushed in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland, the liberalizing influence of the Anabaptist movement had meanwhile spread to other lands; and we shall later see how in Italy, Poland, England, and even in Holland itself, it was among Anabaptists that Unitarian thought first arose.

    Meantime what the development of a more liberal theology most needed was a spokesman, who was not handicapped from the start by association with a discredited movement, and who, instead of joining his attacks upon the doctrine of the Trinity with various other speculations, should win more pointed attention by concentrating his attacks upon that doctrine alone. Such a leader appeared in the person of Servetus, to whom we must next turn.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
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