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The Fringe Groups of the Reformation

The Lutherans, Calvinists, and Presbyterians boasted some of the greatest numbers of followers during the Reformation. However, several smaller groups or movements emerged at various times, especially near the beginning of the movement. These smaller groups of believers tended to have more radical religious beliefs and agendas than Luther, Calvin, and the others—which endeared these groups to ... well, practically no one during this time.

The Church looked at them with the same disdain it had for all the reformers. Other Protestant reformers looked at them as a little bizarre and, frankly, thought of them as hindrances to the spread of their own ideas. Governments who had to deal with these groups looked at them as troublemakers and rebels.

Despite being the odd men out, the smaller reform movements that began around the 1520s persevered, and somehow many of their beliefs survived persecution from all sides. Many of their ideas remain today in denominations around the world.

What was it about these groups that put them on the same side of the Reformation as the Lutherans and Calvinists, for example? And what set them apart from other Protestant groups?

The Anabaptists

The two major theological differences between the smaller, radical groups and the Catholic Church were the issues of the Lord’s Supper and infant baptism, on which they didn’t see eye to eye with the leaders of the Reformation, either.

The common denominator for the smaller groups was baptism. Luther and other Protestant groups, along with the Catholic Church, practiced infant baptism. According to Catholic tradition and some interpretations of the Bible, all babies since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden have been born in sin, thought to be part of man’s makeup. Baptizing infants, it was believed, protected them from so-called original sin. The smaller, radical Reformation groups believed that infant baptism had no biblical basis and was, therefore, wrong. They believed in adult baptism. These radical groups believed that only adults who confessed their sins to God and committed to a life of Christianity should be baptized, not infants.

Because of their belief, their contemporaries referred to them as the “Anabaptists,” or “re-baptizers.” To be sure, their contemporaries never meant for the term to be a compliment. Many religious groups fell under the Anabaptist umbrella, finding success in Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, and as far away as the Netherlands.

The Anabaptists also differed with the Church and other Protestant groups about the Lord’s Supper. They believed neither in transubstantiation nor consubstantiation; they believed Christ intended the Lord’s Supper to be completely symbolic. Furthermore, they didn’t practice the Lord’s Supper in churches but in believer’s homes as a literal supper. This drew sharp criticism from pretty much everyone who wasn’t an Anabaptist.

The Anabaptists were neither a denomination nor an organized church. The name was applied to any number of groups who had common ideas about infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But the similarities among Anabaptist groups went beyond just those ideas. Anabaptist groups held similar beliefs about the Bible, arguing like other Protestants that the Bible reigned supreme on all religious matters, but taking the Bible much more literally.

In fact, the Anabaptists often took ideas in the Bible to extremes. For example, the belief that Christians should not be part of the temporal world led to the development of Anabaptist communities. Anabaptists tried to convert entire cities, like Zurich, into Anabaptist settlements, or they just moved into communes. To complicate matters, many Anabaptists believed that, as Christians who were instructed not to be part of the world, they were not bound by civil authorities. It isn’t hard to imagine why governments didn’t want fringe religious groups who disregarded laws within their borders.

The Anabaptist movement grew throughout the 1500s, thanks in no small part to the scores of missionaries the Anabaptists sent throughout Europe. As the Anabaptist ranks grew, both Catholics and Protestants grew concerned. Both believed the Anabaptist message could potentially threaten the status quo in Europe. To combat the Anabaptists, both sides took shots at them. Zwingli denounced them. Several leaders across Europe found themselves in prison; many more fell victim to execution by means of torture, drowning, burning, choking, and more. The powers-that-be never killed the Anabaptist movement, but they slowed it significantly.

In the 1530s, a gentleman named Menno Simons (1496-1561) took the lead in the Anabaptist movement. He helped strengthen the movement, then organized many Anabaptists throughout Europe into small communities. These communities of Anabaptists eventually took the name Mennonites. Unlike many of the more radical Anabaptists before them, the Mennonites generally obeyed civil authority. Very much pacifists, they refused to take up arms for any reason. The Mennonites influenced several other denominations of Protestantism, including the Quakers, Baptists, and the Amish.

Would You Believe?

Perhaps a quarter-million Mennonites currently reside in the United States. That number represents roughly half the Mennonites in the world today.

The Amish and the Quakers

The Amish developed much later than the early Anabaptists. Jacob Amman (1644-1720), an Anabaptist elder in the 1600s, called for a number of reforms the Men- nonite leaders of Switzerland did not like. The disagreement grew until Amman decided it would be best for him and his followers to part ways with the Mennonites. The new offshoot became known as the Amish.

Like so many other Anabaptist groups, the Amish believed in the supremacy of the Bible and they interpreted it literally. In addition to the strict laws of the Bible, the Amish upheld a set of unwritten moral guidelines known as the “Ordnung.” Like many other Anabaptist groups, the Amish practiced shunning those with unacceptable lifestyles; they went a step further than traditional Anabaptists and even shunned those who married outside their church. When the Amish faced severe persecution in the 1700s, many left for the United States.

The founder of the Quakers, George Fox (1624-1691), found himself drawn to religion from an early age. While in his twenties in England, Fox preached with such passion and authority that he was often sentenced to beatings. Among Fox’s early followers were 60 men and women who helped him spread his message. By the late 1660s, Fox’s small group of followers had grown into tens of thousands of faithful.

As the movement grew, the society endured increasing persecution from the English government because of its members’ refusal to attend and pay tithes to the Anglican Church. (We’ll discuss the formation of the Anglican Church shortly.) Because of the increased persecution, the Quakers began a widespread immigration to North America, where they settled in the colonies of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which was named for Fox’s friend William Penn. The Quakers, like their Anabaptist ancestors, placed great emphasis on lay leadership and on moral standards. They emphasized the goodness of man because of the presence of God in all humans, and they promoted absolute nonviolence.

As a Matter of Fact

The Quakers originally were known as the Religious Society of Friends. The society became known as Quakers when an angry English judge referred to the group as such. In 1677, a few hundred Quakers settled in North America with the help of William Penn, who, though he stayed behind in England, drew up a charter for the new settlement. Years later, King Charles II granted Penn a large tract of land which Penn called Sylvania, Latin for “woods." In honor of Penn's father, Charles renamed the land Pennsylvania.

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