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Our Forebears Paid a Terrible Price

Dec 6, 2004

The current issue of Christian History & Biography magazine (Fall, 2004) carries an excellent article by Chris Armstrong and Jeff Bach entitled “A People of Conscience” which gives further background and context to our forebears, who paid a terrible price for following what they believed to be Scripture’s teaching on the baptism of adults, rather than infants. Here is a small excerpt–to read the full article click here.

When the Swiss brethren instituted adult baptism, daring to separate church and civil government by declaring that the only true church was a church of gathered believers, they would of course raise the ire of the established order.

But even these first zealous Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”—the term of reproof used by their enemies) could not have foreseen the magnitude of the ensuing persecution.

The purge would start almost immediately at the hands of their teacher, Zwingli, and the Zurich city council, and by the end of the 16th century would wipe out some 2,500 of their brethren in the Low Countries—by burning, drowning (fitting, felt their persecutors, for those who insisted on baptism by immersion), and cruel tortures. . .

. . . Many of the movement’s leaders, like the black-haired peasant Blaurock—called “Strong George” and a “second Paul” by followers—came from and cared for the common folk, exemplifying the Anabaptist article of faith that it is the simple and the poor in spirit, not the learned and famous, who are given the gift of understanding God’s kingdom mysteries. . .

. . . In Schwarzenau on the Eder River, separatists Alexander and Anna Margareta Mack looked to Arnold’s accounts of early Christians and to the New Testament for models of the church. Mennonite writings such as the Martyrs Mirror also influenced the Macks. They felt called to form a gathered church.

In August 1708, eight people went to the Eder River to receive baptism by threefold immersion in the names of the Trinity upon the confession of their faith and repentance from sin. The group also agreed to practice mutual church discipline. They observed the Lord’s supper with foot washing, an agape meal (“love feast”), and the Eucharist, consisting of unleavened bread and wine.

These “New Anabaptists,” or “Dunkers” were pacifists and rejected oaths. They evangelized energetically and emphasized the joy in discipleship. With their baptism in 1708 the Brethren broke with their separatist friends in Schwarzenau.

But their zeal and love was not always matched by theological or organizational acumen. A preacher would come into town, preach the message of a Bible-based, gathered church, and move on. Converts often came together to form churches on the barest framework of teachings.