The Reformation of the 16th century was a revolution of ideas. For over a thousand years the Papacy had controlled the minds and destinies of the European population. Whether you were a prince or a pauper you paid homage to the Pope and to the ordinances of the church, especially if you wanted to secure your eternal destiny.
At a time when mortality was astonishingly high and education equally low, the church became the center of wisdom and authority in matters of life and death. The superstitious beliefs that had crept into the Catholic church through the mingling of Roman paganism, served to transform the general populous of Europe into a mass of fearful humanity.
When the plague ravaged Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries the teachings of the church with regard to death, hell and purgatory became even more relevant. It seemed that the church alone had the answers to what happened in the misty depths of the afterlife.
The reformation changed all of this progressively. When Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others began presenting the Bible as the only source of infallible authority, they immediately impugned the authority of the Pope and the Papacy. More than anything else the Reformation gave men and women permission to think for themselves. By leading people to the Bible, the Reformers taught the people how to commune with God personally and individually.
In place of the old and tired Papal dictate of nulla salus extra ecclesiam meaning outside of the church there is no salvation, they showed people that indeed salvation could be found outside of the church though not outside of Christ. Instead of turning to the Pope for the hope of Salvation and eternal life men and women could now turn to Christ himself.
If they wanted to understand the mysteries of what happened after death or the mechanics of salvation men and women could now look for answers in the Bible. The Reformation was, in many ways, a revolution of ideas and ideologies. It changed the way people thought and so it changed the world.
One of the core tenants of the Reformation was the idea of freedom of conscience. The concept that a man’s conscience is captive to God alone and never to another man. Luther’s famous statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521 encapsulates this maxim. Speaking directly to the Papal Legate and Emperor Luther said: “my conscience is captive to the Word of God”. This sentiment was one of the keynotes of the Reformation. No longer did the Pope or any other mortal man have the right to hold sway over the conscience of another. That privilege belonged to God alone.
But even as the Reformers understood and embraced this concept, years within the Papal system made it extremely difficult for them to effectively apply it. Nowhere is this reality seen more clearly than in the treatment of the Anabaptists and the rise of what is now known as the Radical Reformation.
The main focal point of Anabaptism was a genuine Christian experience that was based on a conscious, informed commitment to following Christ. The source of this commitment was the Bible. Anabaptism first emerged in Zurich between 1523 and 1525, growing out of disputes between men like Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, and Zwingli who was then the leading proponent of the Swiss Reformation.
The main points of difference were tithing, images in churches, and finally and perhaps most pivotally, the nature of baptism and its importance to salvation and faith. Anabaptists maintained that, given the personal nature of justification by faith, infants could not and should not be baptized because they were incapable of demonstrating faith. They buttressed their argument with the fact the Bible does not contain any instances of infant baptism.
However, in January 1525, the Zurich City Council with the support of Zwingli ruled that all infants should be baptized. In defiance of this ruling, Anabaptists conducted the first adult baptism in the city. However, despite their defiant stance, Anabaptists were fiercely pacifist in nature, preferring peaceful, scripture-based protest to the taking up of arms.
Their understanding of the nature of Christian discipleship and the transforming power of justification by faith led them to criticize Reformers like Zwingli and Luther, alleging that they preached justification by faith without emphasizing the transforming power of the cross of Christ.
The most important early Anabaptist groups were the Swiss Brethren, the South German/Austrian Anabaptists, and Hutterites. All of these groups were severely persecuted by proponents of the Reformation and were martyred on many occasions. Some of the more notable occasions being instances when Calvin had Anabaptists in Geneva drowned because of their belief in adult baptism.
Today many of the descendants of these early Anabaptist movements are still in existence. The Amish are the descendants of the Swiss Brethren and live in special communities in North America.
Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from the Radical Reformation and the rise of the Anabaptist movement is the inviolable nature of religious liberty. We live in a world where freedom of conscience is not always valued and respected. If Medieval Papistry has taught us anything it must be this; no man has the right to dictate to the conscience of another. How we worship, who we worship, and when we worship is our prerogative alone. It is a sacred choice we make for which we are accountable to God alone. In a world where social justice is widely championed may we remember that religious liberty is an important social justice issue, one that was disputed during the reformation and one that we must champion earnestly today.