Ross Bender, June 2004
ANABAPTIST ATTITUDES TOWARD THE TURKS
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
The actual practice of adult baptism can be dated to 1525 in
But from the beginning of the Swiss Brethren group in
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
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 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.”
“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
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.
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 “
Interrogation of Hans Hubner, 1527, Wappler, Thuringen
“The Turk will enter these
lands and great war will come either from the south or
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.
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.”
Mast, Gerald. “ Writings on Christian Nonresistance and Pacifism from Anabaptist-Mennonite Sources.” http://www.bluffton.edu/~mastg/pacifism.htm
Robert Friedmann tells the story
of a Hutterite whose wife and daughters were taken by the Turks and who traveled repeatedly to
Gary K. Waite describes the intensification of witch-hunting
in 16th century
DeWind, Henry A. "Anabaptists in Thessalonica?" Jan. 1955 Mennonite Quarterly Review (29:70-73)
Robert. "Adventures of an Anabaptist in
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
Harlan Unrau pointed out to me
that the North German Mennonites invited by Catharine the Great to settle in
“In 1762-63 Catharine II
invited Germans and other Europeans to settle lands in
Friesen, Abraham. Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission. (Eerdmans, 1998)