Ross Bender, June 2004







The Anabaptists were a diverse and amorphous radical religious movement in the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century. Their insistence on adult baptism (Anabaptist = rebaptizer) signified a revolutionary break with the medieval ideal of the corpus Christianum. This insistence and practice of a voluntary religious covenant outside the control of the state took them further to the left than mainstream reformers like Luther and Calvin. Their radicalism, frequently allied with a widespread revolutionary peasant movement, brought upon them the wrath of the established Church and State, whether Catholic or Protestant.


Thus they have been described as the “Left Wing of the Reformation” (Roland Bainton) and the “Radical Reformation” (George Williams). Their association with the German Peasant War of 1525 and the Anabaptist kingdom of Muenster (1534-35) led to widespread attempts to exterminate the movement, and by about 1540 most major Anabaptist leaders had been tortured to death.  In the Netherlands a former Catholic priest named Menno Simons pulled together the remnants of the more peaceful wing of the Anabaptist movement in the mid 1500s, and this wing has survived as the Mennonites (and their offshoot the Amish). In southeastern Europe another peaceful group of Anabaptist survived as the Hutterites. Both groups gradually emigrated to North America, although Anabaptist groups exist around the world due to missionary activity, today numbering about one million.


The actual practice of adult baptism can be dated to 1525 in Zurich, Switzerland, although the practice spread rapidly and apparently had multiple points of genesis in Switzerland, southern and central Germany, the Tyrol, north Germany, and the Netherlands. Although the Mennonites and Hutterites today are distinguished by their thoroughgoing pacifism, many of the Anabaptists in Europe in the 1520s and 30s were violent revolutionaries. The great peasant rebellion of 1525 had many participants who identified as Anabaptists. In 1534 the north German city of Muenster was taken over by Anabaptists who instituted polygamy and a community of goods, and who fought off the Catholic bishops’ armies until June of 1535. This revolutionary movement has been claimed by Engels,  Kautsky and other Marxist historians as the genesis of Communism in Europe.


But from the beginning of the Swiss Brethren group in Zurich, there was an extreme pacifist wing of the Anabaptists which renounced any use of the sword. This meant a renunciation of military duties or careers, and usually of any public office which involved the exercise of lethal force. This did not account by itself for the brutal suppression of the movement, for Erasmus, an extreme theoretical pacifist, died in bed as a Catholic. It was rather the direct challenge to the medieval polity of the allied church and state, combined with the violent and revolutionary tendencies of some Anabaptists, which accounted for the attempts at extermination.


Since most Anabaptist leaders were martyred in their youth, a systematic theology does not remain, except in the writings of Menno Simons. Historians have reconstructed the movement from fragmentary evidence: letters, written confessions of faith, records of trials, and especially records of interrogations under torture. A vivid martyrology also grew up among remnant Anabaptist groups and has provided a major devotional source for their descendants.


During the Reformation the Ottoman Empire, founded in the late 13th century, had become a direct military threat to Western Europe. Constantinople had been conquered in 1453. In 1521 Suleiman the Magnificent captured Belgrade, proceeded to take Hungary, and in 1529 besieged Vienna. The Turkish threat contributed enormously to the apocalyptic expectations of the time. This essay summarizes briefly three attitudes of Anabaptist reformers toward the Turks.


Erasmian Pacifism


Desiderius  Erasmus, d. 1536, the Dutch humanist, was a thoroughgoing pacifist, at least in theory. In numerous works, such as “Oration on Peace and Discord,” “Handbook of the Militant Christian”, “The Praise of Folly”, “Charon”, “On Mending the Peace of the Church” he continually emphasizes the madness and futility of war, especially for those who claim to be Christians.. In the “Adages” he quotes Pindar to the effect that “war is sweet to those who have not tried it.” In “Against War”, he writes to Pope Julius II trying to persuade him not to make war on Venice. A few quotations suffice to demonstrate the extent of his pacifist thought:


“War is such a monstrous pursuit
that it's proper only for beasts, not men;
so crazy that even the poets suppose Furies bring it upon us;
so infectious that it spreads moral corruption far and near;
so unjust that it's most effectively waged
by the most cruel of thieves;
so impious that it's utterly detestable to Christ.”

  (in Beck)


“To me it does not even seem recommendable that we  should now be preparing
war against the Turks. The  Christian religion is in a bad way, if its
safety  depends on this sort of defense. Nor is it consistent to make good
Christians under these auspices. What is taken  by the sword is lost by the
sword. Are you anxious to  win the Turks for Christ? Let us not display our
wealth,  our armies, our strength. Let them see in us not only  the name,
but the unmistakable marks of a Christian: a  blameless life, the wish to
do good even to our enemies,  a tolerance which will withstand all
injuries, contempt  of money, heedlessness of glory, life held lightly;
let  them hear that heavenly doctrine which is in accordance  with this
kind of life. These are the best arms with  which to defeat the Turks."

  (in Klassen, William.)



Erasmus and the Anabaptists


In his works of the mid 1500s, after a degree of toleration had been achieved in the Netherlands, the Anabaptist leader Menno Simons does refer frequently to Erasmus. However, early Anabaptist pacifist teaching is established already in the Schleitheim (Switzerland) Confession of 1527. One of the leaders of the Swiss Brethren, Conrad Grebel, is known to have studied at universities in Paris and it is assumed that as an educated person he would have known the work of Erasmus. However, he died in 1527 without leaving a body of scholarly writing.

Irvin Horst notes that Balthasar Hubmaier, the south German Anabaptist leader, "thought of Erasmus as one of his friends and visited him at Basel at least once." Horst also states that the correspondence of Erasmus shows that he was "fairly well informed about the Anabaptists and mentioned them frequently in communicating with his friends." (Horst, 9ff.)

There is a small body of present-day scholarly work examining the influence of Erasmus on the Anabaptists, (DiGennaro, Beck, inter alia) but the early connections are extremely tenuous. While Anabaptists may have respected Erasmus more than other reformers, Anabaptist pacifism comes, as does the Erasmian, from study of the New Testament.


Anabaptist Attitudes toward the Turks


Below are Anabaptist statements regarding the Turks, grouped into three areas.


Pacifism and Toleration


The peaceful Anabaptists refused to take the sword either against the persecuting Christian state or against the Turks.


Balthasar Hubmaier, 1524


“A Turk or a heretic cannot be persuaded by us either with the sword or with fire, but only with patience and prayer…

(Klassen, Walter. 292)


Hans Denck, 1527


“Such a security will exist also in outward things, with practice of the true gospel that each will let the other move and dwell in peace – be he Turk or heathen, believing what he will – through and in his land, not submitting to a magistrate in matters of faith.” (Klassen, Walter. 292)


Kilian Aurbacher, 1534


“It is never right to compel one in matters of faith, whatever he may believe, be he Jew or Turk.” (Klassen, Walter. 293)




Hans Umlauft, 1539


“Therefore I believe that many children of Abraham are to be found among the heathen, carved in stone (Mt. 3:9, Rom. 9:8). Similarly, this unpartisan God took pleasure in Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abraham, who was a heathen before his circumcision, Naaman, Cyrus the Persian king, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, Nathanael, the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 2:9), and Cornelius before and without the external circumcision in baptism… We must listen to Christ when he says that many, who are today called Turks and heathen, will come from east and west and eat with Abraham in the kingdom of God. By contrast, the children of the kingdom, the so-called Christians and the Jews who presume to sit in the front and who believe that God belongs to them, will be thrust out.” (Klassen, Walter. 295)




The Turks as Apocalyptic Agent of God’s Judgment


The Reformation, and particularly the Anabaptist movement, was steeped in millenarian expectations, and even Luther at one point predicted the time of the end of the world. Reformers customarily termed the Papacy and each other “the Antichrist” or “Babylon” or “the Great Whore”. In this apocalyptic milieu, several Anabaptists referred to the advance of the Ottoman Turks as God’s judgment on Christendom.


Interrogation of Hans Hubner, 1527, Wappler, Thuringen


“The Turk will enter these lands and great war will come either from the south or Hungary, or from the north. When that happens, the gospel will be preached purely and clearly. When the Turk comes, the people will flee into the forests and hide themselves…Then, if this judgment takes place, those who have accepted the covenant will root out all those who survive the Turks. Soon thereafter Christ will come and the last day. It is twenty-two months before the last day comes. (Klassen, Walter. 321)


Interrogation of Ambrosius Spitelmaier, 1527, Schornbaum


“God will very soon raise up a people which we call heathen and enemies of the cross of Christ, namely the Turks. (Ezek 7, Dan 7) (Klassen, Walter. 321)


See also for example Snyder (170, 204, 155, 194-5) for the similar positions of Anabaptist leaders Hans Hut, Melchoir Hoffman, and the prophetess Ursala Jost.



The Christian State is “Turkish in Spirit”


Here Islam is identified as a heresy, but the claim is made that the so-called Christian state itself behaves like Turks.




Michael Sattler, “Trial”, 1527


“Eighthly, if the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them. For it is written (Mt. 5:21) Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said that, if warring were right, I would rather take the field against so-called Christians who persecute, capture, and kill pious Christians than against the Turks was for the following reason. The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith, and is a Turk after the flesh. But you who would be Christians and who make your boast of Christ persecute the pious witnesses of Christ and are Turks after the spirit!”

(Klassen, Walter. 270)




As radical sectarians, both revolutionary and peaceful, the Anabaptists had a very different outlook on the Turkish threat than did mainstream Christianity. Due to intense persecution, these positions were never articulated in a systematic theology. But their statements testify to the fact that in the Reformation there were in fact a diversity of views, and that the Christian West did not represent a monolithic enemy of Islam.


Note on Sources


The quotations are from William Klassen’s sourcebook, Anabaptism in Outline. The standard overview of Anabaptist/Mennonite history is C.J. Dyck’s An Introduction to Mennonite History. Most helpful in tracing the evolution of Anabaptist attitudes toward violence (and the Turks) is James Stayer, The Anabaptists and the Sword.



     Dyck, C.J. An Introduction to Mennonite History. (Herald Press, 1993)


     Horst, Irvin B. "Erasmus, the Anabaptists and the Problem of Religious Unity." (The Algemene Doopsgezinde Societeit, 1967)


     Klassen, Walter. Anabaptism in Outline. (Herald Press, 1981)


Klassen, William. "Erasmus, The Anabaptists and the Idea of Peace" in Brensinger and Sider, eds., Within the Perfection of Christ: Essays on Peace and the Nature of the Church. (Evangel Press, 1990).


Snyder, C. Arnold.  Anabaptist History and Theology: An Introduction.  (Pandora Press, 1995)


Stayer, James. Anabaptists and the Sword. (Coronado Press, 1972)


For Erasmus and the Anabaptists I have largely depended on two excellent online essays by DiGennaro and Beck. DiGennaro includes an extensive bibliography on the topic. Gerald Mast’s website has a comprehensive collection of online resources.


Beck, Sanderson. “Erasmus and Anabaptists.”,Anabaptists.html



DiGennaro, Aram. “Christ at the Center: The Concept of Discipleship in the Writings   of Desiderius Erasmus and Balthasar Hubmaier”.


Mast, Gerald. Writings on Christian Nonresistance and Pacifism from Anabaptist-Mennonite Sources.”



Robert Friedmann tells the story of a Hutterite whose wife and daughters were taken by the Turks and who traveled repeatedly to Budapest and Turkey in the years 1607-1610 to attempt to ransom them. Friedmann and DeWind investigate the relations of Anabaptists in Thessalonica in the sixteenth century and their contacts with the Hutterites in Moravia.

Gary K. Waite describes the intensification of witch-hunting in 16th century Netherlands as the Anabaptist persecutions waned.


DeWind, Henry A. "Anabaptists in Thessalonica?" Jan. 1955 Mennonite Quarterly Review (29:70-73)


Friedmann, Robert. "Adventures of an Anabaptist in Turkey, 1607-1610.” April 1943 Mennonite Quarterly Review (17:73-86)

Friedmann, Robert: "Christian sectarians in Thessalonica and their relationship to the Anabaptists”, with addenda in Jan. 1956 (30:78) Jan. 1956 Mennonite Quarterly Review(29:54-69)

Waite, Gary K. “Between the devil and the inquisitor: Anabaptists, diabolical conspiracies and magical beliefs in the sixteenth-century Netherlands.” In Packull and Dipple, eds., Radical Reformation Studies: Essays presented to James M. Stayer. (Ashgate, 1999)


Harlan Unrau pointed out to me that the North German Mennonites invited by Catharine the Great to settle in the Ukraine were given lands recently rid of the Turks. C.J. Dyck describes this emigration:


“In 1762-63 Catharine II invited Germans and other Europeans to settle lands in Southern Russia wrested from the Turks in war, thus assuring their continued possession. Catherine II was the German-born wife of Peter III and succeeded him as ruler of Russia in 1762. Within ten years her invitation had resulted in the establishment of about one hundred German colonies in Southern Russia, but the Mennonites were not to come until the 1780s. Even then they were not motivated so much by the attractive settlement opportunity as by the pressure of events at home in Prussia. They did not seem to have been aware that they were being used as political pawns in the “New Russia” lands… Their vision was sectarian and, hence, inner-directed.”


Additional References


Friesen, Abraham. Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission. (Eerdmans, 1998)



Exorcism in Some Beat Poetry


The Anabaptist Vision

Hachiman, The Shinto God of War


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