Baptists and the Reformation
by Alun McNabb
The church of Jesus Christ has taken many strange turns throughout its history. The time of the Reformation was no exception. It was a time of much rejoicing and of much sorrow. This article is written not to stir up controversy but as a humble plea that we should learn from history.
From the fourth century, those practising the baptism of believers by immersion suffered fierce opposition and cruelty at the hands of the Constantinian regime. As Romanism increased in power, with its State Church system, those of Baptist persuasion were martyred in their thousands. Not all who practised baptism in this manner were orthodox Christians but the sin of deviating from infant baptism was enough to condemn them to an early grave.
The pilgrim church
E. H. Broadbent in The pilgrim church writes, ‘For more than twelve centuries baptism in the way taught and described in the New Testament had been made an offence against the law, punishable by death’.
But now the Reformation had come this would surely change? The Bible was opened, justification by faith was preached, and the Baptists looked forward to serving God with the other Reformers in a new climate of gospel opportunity. But they were to be bitterly disappointed. The Reformers persecuted them in exactly the same way as did the Catholics.
Even in our enlightened age, the average Christian knows little about the treatment our Baptist brethren received at that time. The Reformers, including Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin, would allow no view but their own.
Enjoying new-found freedom from the persecuting yoke of Rome, they were not at all happy about granting the same freedom to those who disagreed with them. When anyone deviated from infant baptism they saw red. In their defence it is sometimes argued that they were ‘children of their day’. But the Baptists were children of the same day – yet they understood the biblical teaching on liberty of conscience much more clearly.
Though they themselves disowned the name, the Baptists were usually called Anabaptists because they were seen as re-baptising those who had been baptised in infancy. They not only saw believer’s baptism in the New Testament, but also the great theme of religious freedom. The Reformers opposed them fiercely. H. L. Ellison writes:
‘Until recently, Anabaptist history has been known to us mainly through the vilifications of their opponents, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, who regarded them as enemies of God, and emissaries of Satan: a garbled version of the tragedies of Munster was held to serve as a picture of all.
‘Indeed, the first comprehensive survey of the movement in English, G. H. Williams’ The Radical Reformation, was not published till 1962. In all the story of zeal, suffering, persecution and martyr-death, the palm must be awarded to these outcasts’.
The vast majority of Anabaptists totally repudiated the gross misbehaviour of Munster. Robert Rodgers has written, ‘To understand the Anabaptist movement as a whole, one must turn aside from the abnormal events of Munster and base one’s judgment upon the total picture’.
Battle on two fronts
In the early days of the Reformation the Baptists had the support of some of the Reformers. Luther and Zwingli in particular expressed strong doubts on the subject of baptism. It is well known that Luther changed his mind frequently on the subject.
But despite their early feelings that the Baptist position had some merit, history shows that after the Reformers embraced the prereformation stance of a State Church system the Baptists received little mercy.
The Reformers had a battle on two fronts, one with Rome and the other with the Baptists. But they need not worry – the State would come to their aid.
Before Luther embraced the Church-State system, he wrote in 1523, ‘God neither can, nor will, suffer any to rule over the soul but himself alone. Therefore, when worldly authority presumes to make laws for the soul it impinges upon the government of God’. These sound like the words of a good Free-churchman. But Luther was to change. Nine years later in 1532 we find him writing, ‘The secular authority has the sword, with command that it shall restrain all scandal, that it shall not spread or do damage. But it is the most dangerous and dreadful scandal when false doctrine and improper worship spread’.
Freedom of conscience
In 1527 Luther and Melanchthon embraced the concept of the State-Church. In so doing they secularised the church, sided with ungodly authorities, assigned spiritual power to worldly government, and thereafter became a persecuting party.
In all this they followed the example of Rome. Despite all the gospel doctrines marvellously recovered – for which we shall ever give thanks to God – the Baptists (and any others who did not toe the Reformers’ line) would now get the same treatment from their Protestant ‘friends’ as they had previously received from their Romanist enemies.
The Reformers were centuries behind the Baptists on the subject of freedom of conscience. They grasped it for themselves but had no intention of sharing it with others. Interestingly enough, the same thing happened when the Mayflower pilgrims sailed to the New World in 1620 seeking religious freedom. Having got it, they resisted for years giving it to others.
In 1530 even the gentle Melanchthon could write to Myconius: ‘But now I regret not a little my former mildness. I am now of the opinion that persons who defend an article of doctrine which is openly blasphemous should be put to death by the authorities’.
And what was considered ‘openly blasphemous’ was anything that deviated from the Reformers’ view. Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon and others eagerly welcomed the death penalty for Baptists and similar ‘heretics’.
In 1534 the Protestant city of Strasbourg decreed that no child was to be left unbaptised, and that children so left unbaptised would be baptised ‘by the officers of the law’. Can it be surprising that the Baptists were asking, ‘Where is such a Christianity to be found in the New Testament?’
The early Reformers were Protestants, which meant protesting against the false doctrines of Romanism and protesting, just as severely, against any of a Baptist viewpoint.
It was the same in Zwingli’s Zurich. An edict of 1526 contained the following: ‘Whoever confesses re-baptism to be wrong and infant baptism to be right, and admits that he has erred, shall be released on a solemn oath, on which occasion it shall be solemnly said to him that he shall have nought to do with re-baptism by word or deed, nor speak or teach about it anywhere.
‘He shall keep away from clandestine preaching, and attend the regular parish church; similarly shall not visit the Baptists in house or home, and afford them neither hiding place nor support, and this in no form, either food or drink or abode; and if he transgress this, and show himself disobedient, he shall again be seized and forthwith without mercy be drowned’.
So this was the Christianity of the Protestant State Church. The enforcement of such edicts meant untold suffering for multitudes of Baptist persuasion.
No Baptist martyrs?
One of the favourite sources of historical Protestant information has been Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Foxe did a wonderful job as far as it went but his almost total exclusion of any Baptist martyrs is a clear indication of how these faithful Bible-believing people of God were viewed.
He did make an unsuccessful plea for two Baptists to be spared the fires of Smithfield in 1575 but at the same time pronounced them to be in error and only asked that they be given time for repentance. Had he not made his position clear, his own name would soon have been in his own book of martyrs!
Had some of the leading Protestant Reformers had their way, there would not be a Baptist living on the earth. But the ‘heretics’ grew in strength and numbers and with the passage of time their view of religious freedom has been totally vindicated.
Beware a judgemental spirit
What a wonderful thing is religious liberty and freedom of conscience. How easily it is now taken for granted. Our Baptist forefathers bought it at the high price of their blood, through unspeakable cruel persecutions.
The Reformers, who usually get all the attention when the Reformation is mentioned, proved themselves to have feet of clay by persecuting other thoroughly biblical reformers, who died that the New Testament Christianity of Jesus Christ – and the freedom of conscience it teaches – might eventually be accepted as the mainstream position.
Christians of all persuasions owe a great debt to our Baptist forefathers and the Independents who also strove for the same liberty of conscience.
Praise God, we live in happier times when all who know and love our Lord Jesus Christ can live in sweet fellowship, the one with the other. But let history warn us against that judgemental spirit that so often pervades our congregations and mars much of our peace, joy and usefulness.